Canada

Pharmacists association criticizes new messaging from NACI on vaccines

“It might lead to vaccine hesitancy just in general because you know, that kind of mixed messaging always makes people hesitate more.”

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Pharmacists in Ottawa says messaging from Canada’s immunization advisory board has already led to patients cancelling appointments for the AstraZeneca vaccine and could discourage more from getting their shots.

Renu Lapillay, owner of Whole Health Pharmacy in the Glebe, said Tuesday that he has gotten several calls from patients expressing concerns about the AstraZeneca jab after a new report from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s (NACI) released Monday included a “recommendation for the preferential use” of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines — like the ones developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

“I had one person that called in to say, based on what she heard on the news today, that she wanted to cancel her appointment,” Lapillay said.

“It might lead to vaccine hesitancy just in general because you know, that kind of mixed messaging always makes people hesitate more.”

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Lapillay added that with the information he has from the province, he can answer questions from his patients before administering the vaccine and they appear satisfied with what he shares.

In Ontario, public health agencies are administering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, while pharmacists are providing doses of AstraZeneca, a viral vector vaccine. Another viral vector vaccine from Johnson & Johnson has been approved for use in Canada and could be deployed to the provinces and territory in the near future.

Blood clots, or thrombosis, has been reported as a rare side effect of the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines.

Despite federal messaging encouraging people to take the first shot made available to them, NACI vice-chair Dr. Shelley Deeks said on Monday that Canadians would have to weigh their individual risks and the COVID-19 situation in their area when deciding whether to delay their vaccination until they are eligible for an mRNA vaccine.

“They need to make an informed choice as to whether they would prefer to get vaccinated sooner with a Janssen, or AstraZeneca vaccine or wait to receive the mRNA vaccine,” she said.

“What we’ve said all along is that the mRNA vaccines are the preferred vaccine, yet given the epidemiology, the viral vector vaccines are very effective vaccines, but there is a safety signal, a safety risk … and the issue with the safety signal is although it is very rare, it is very serious.”

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The recommendation from NACI drew swift criticism online, with many worrying that the messaging would discourage people from getting vaccinated as quickly as possible and contradicted advice from Health Canada and other public health officials to take the first vaccine made available.

Phil Emberley, acting director of professional development with the Canadian Pharmacists Association, said the group was “disappointed” with the wording used by NACI because it created confusion and could contribute to vaccine hesitancy.

“I think it’s important that there’s transparency about the risks and benefits of the approved vaccines; we understand that and we appreciate that. But it’s really important as you could message it with the right nuance, in order to not scare Canadians, but rather to give them confidence,” he said.

“We believe that all of…the COVID-19 vaccines that were authorized in Canada are safe and effective. So, we continue to urge Canadians, as soon as they become eligible, to get the shot that is provided to them.”

In the wake of NACI’s announcement, Emberely said the association heard that pharmacists were being “inundated” with phone calls from anxious patients with vaccine appointments. However, he noted that these conversations with health professionals can help address concerns about the vaccines.

Sal Osman, owner of Proactive Pharmacy in Ottawa’s Ledbury-Heron Gate-Ridgemont neighbourhood, also reported cancellations from patients since Monday’s announcement. He said it was “frustrating” to see NACI contradict messaging from the federal government and Canada’s top public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam.

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“There is hesitancy. It’s a little bit more so now, and it’s showing in cancellations that we’re receiving, for today and tomorrow,” Osman said of his appointment situation, adding that despite the 10-15 cancellations he had recently, the spots were all “quickly filled.”

Luke Skywalker, owner of the Blossom Park Pharmacy in the city’s south-end, emphasized that all approved COVID-19 vaccines offered protection against the virus.

“All vaccines do offer some protection. Better to have a vaccine than not get vaccinated at all.”

Skywalker said on Tuesday morning that when he told a patient that his pharmacy was administering the AstraZeneca vaccine, she let out a sigh and consoled herself by saying “it’s better than nothing.” Skywalker, though, insisted that “it’s not better than nothing — it’s good period.”

“It’s a good vaccine,” he added.

-With files from Marco Vigliotti and The Canadian Press

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