VANCOUVER -- People aged 40 and older in B.C. can now get an AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot at local pharmacies.

That update comes as the province deals with a surge in COVID-19 cases and a worrying increase in hospitalizations.

Previously, B.C. had been only distributing AstraZeneca doses to people aged 55 to 65 while the vaccine was under review for its potential connection to extremely rare blood clots.

But B.C.'s health officials now say those instances are so rare, that the vaccines are considered safe to use for people aged 40 and older. People in that age group can now book an appointment with some local pharmacies.

"Over this past week we have been working closely with Health Canada, with our National Advisory Committee on Immunization and with my counterparts from across the country to better understand the risks and the benefits of this vaccine in the context of the safety signal that we've heard," Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday, explaining that the risk of rare blood clots associated with vaccination is about "four in a million."

"We need to put that in context of what we're seeing across our province right now, where COVID transmission rates are very high and high in many communities and the risk of hospitalization from COVID is about two to four in 100 for most people," she said.

Local health authorities are also being instructed to open additional clinics that will only be providing the AstraZeneca vaccine. This is to vaccinate more people in communities with high COVID-19 rates, and hopefully reduce hospitalizations.

Local health authorities are also being instructed to use the vaccine at extra AstraZeneca-only clinics in high-risk communities in an effort to reduce hospitalizations.

The following communities are being targeted next for those AstraZeneca clinics, based on their high COVID case rate per capita:

  • Dawson Creek
  • West Newton
  • Whalley
  • North Delta
  • East Newton
  • Panorama
  • South Langley Township
  • West Abbotsford
  • North Surrey
  • Port Coquitlam
  • Squamish
  • Kensington
  • Fleetwood

Last week, health officials explained that as the number of young people contracting the coronavirus - whether at work or in social settings - has grown, the number of hospitalizations for people in the 40 to 59 age group has been increasing.

"We know that the benefits of this vaccine far outweigh the risk of very rare blood clots. We also know that we understand a bit more about how these happen," Henry said. "Clinicians have been notified and we have a test for it and we have treatment."

So far, 114,171 doses of the AstraZeneca have been administered in B.C.

B.C.'s officials says the province is still on track to offer a first dose to all adults by July 1. There are just over three million eligible people still to be vaccinated, officials said.