Eligible Albertans can start making appointments for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, and upgrades have been made that officials believe will prevent a repeat of last month’s system crash.

READ MORE: Alberta COVID-19 vaccine booking site experiences ‘very high volumes’ as appointments open to those 75 and older

Starting Wednesday, Albertans 50 to 64 years old, as well as First Nations, Metis and Inuit people 35 to 49 years old, who do not have a severe chronic illness can call 811 or make appointments through the online portal.

There are roughly 400,000 Albertans who fall in those age groups, the province said Monday.

READ MORE: Alberta to begin Phase 2A of COVID-19 vaccine rollout March 15; plan for AstraZeneca vaccine released

AHS said it upgraded its online portal on March 3 to increase capacity and make it more convenient for Albertans to make an appointment. The health authority is also adding staff to support 811.

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“The system has been improved by making several upgrades, including adding more servers to support the website and increasing processing power.

“More network bandwidth has also been added, meaning the network can manage a higher volume of data than before,” reads a statement from AHS to Global News.

2:18
Alberta to begin offering AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to those eligible

Alberta to begin offering AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to those eligible

“It’s encouraging that there has been such a high demand. At the same time, these challenges should have been anticipated,” Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease professor at the University of Alberta, said about last month’s booking issues.

“We’ve had over a year now to plan for the ultimate rollout of vaccinations.

“I hope that increasing capacity will be able, from the IT perspective, and having people managing phones etc., is going to be able to manage that increase.”

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Alberta Health Minister says AHS is ‘fixing the the problems’ with COVID-19 vaccine booking system – Feb 24, 2021

Bookings will take place by year of birth, one day at a time, while supply lasts. Albertans born in 1957, or those First Nations, Metis or Inuit born in 1972, can start booking appointments Wednesday. Those born in later years can book in the subsequent days.

Dr. Noel Gibney, co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s (EZMSA) pandemic response committee, is hopeful this change, and other upgrades, will make a difference.

“I think it appears AHS has certainly learned a lot since the first rollout,” he said.

“I certainly think it will be an improvement. Only time will tell whether or not people will obey and not book on the days they are not supposed to book.”

The portal is able to book approximately 100,000 appointments over a 24-hour period, according to AHS.

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Dr. Don Wilson, a community physician and president of the community physicians’ division of the EZMSA, said there are indications Wednesday’s bookings will run smoother than the last time around but he does not expect completely smooth sailing.

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“I still think it’s going to be slightly overwhelmed, or at least long waits to get people into queue, mainly because you’re dealing with a much larger population than dealing with the over 75,” he said.

More pharmacies have been tasked with vaccinating Albertans against COVID-19, but Wilson said vaccine rollout could speed up if family doctors were involved.

“We’re missing opportunity here to get this vaccine out. Physicians are always willing to help out. Really, it’s part of the tool chest,” he said.

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As of last Friday, Alberta Health told Global News that work is underway to potentially include community physicians in later phases of the rollout.

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“We will update Albertans in the weeks ahead as vaccine supply increases, and Alberta’s immunization program expands,” said spokesperson Christa Jubinville.

Definition of severe chronic illness unclear

While upgrades to the booking system have been made, it is still unclear how the province is defining “severe chronic illness” for those it does not believe should get the AstraZeneca vaccine.

On Monday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw acknowledged that, without a definition, it is confusing and said work on a list of what qualifies as a severe chronic illness is being made.

“With AstraZeneca coming sooner than anticipated, unfortunately, I recognize the timing isn’t ideal for those trying to decide if they should get AstraZeneca or not. We will be making that list available publicly very soon,” she said.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Could Albertans choose which vaccine they get?

At this point, it is not clear whether a list will be available before bookings for the AstraZeneca vaccine start Wednesday.

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Schwartz, who is of the opinion the AstraZeneca vaccine should not be withheld from any age group, said the situation about severe chronic illnesses isn’t binary, saying everyone has some degree of wellness or illness on the spectrum.

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He stresses that there have been no signals the vaccine is unsafe or lacks efficacy in particular age groups or based on comorbidities, saying there was not enough data from the clinical trials to make definitive conclusions.

However, he said the lack of a clear definition for Albertans is confusing.

“I think that people should expect that unless they already know they have a serious illness that they should expect by default that they are eligible for the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“Those individuals that do have severe illnesses will know that is the case,” Schwartz said.

Vaccination will lead to protection

The province has said that Albertans who fall into Wednesday’s eligibility could also wait until later in the year to receive the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

Read more:
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Schwartz is encouraging people to get the vaccine that is offered to them as quickly as possible.

“There is no protection while we’re waiting for another vaccine to be coming down the line. The faster you get vaccinated, the faster you’re going to be protected,” he said.

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Gibney, meanwhile, said real-life trials of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Scotland have shown the vaccine functions well and prevents severe illness.

“From my perspective, I would say to anyone within that age group – don’t hesitate. Get your vaccination as quickly as you can and the best vaccine is the one you can get most rapidly,” he said.

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