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B.C. resists offering fourth dose of COVID vaccine to broader population

Canada’s chief public health officer said booster shots could help reduce severe illness if the country sees a COVID-19 resurgence in the fall and winter.
Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

B.C. health officials’ decision to limit who gets fourth COVID-19 vaccine doses seems to be at odds with advice from Canada’s chief medical officer.

Despite ongoing pressure to change its stance, the province is giving fourth doses only to people age 70 and older, Indigenous people over 55, and people in long-term care. Those individuals can receive their fourth dose six months after their last booster.

Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam warned Thursday that there could be a rise in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks due to highly transmissible Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 circulating, which evade immunity more than previous variants.

That’s why she urged those behind on their boosters to catch up now.

She and federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos stressed the importance of up-to-date vaccination status, noting 40 per cent of Canadians still have not received a booster following their primary two shots, putting Canada behind other G7 countries when it comes to three doses.

Tam also warned of a possible COVID-19 resurgence in the fall and winter, and said booster shots could help reduce severe outcomes and ease potential strain on the health-care system.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has advised jurisdictions to prepare to offer another round of shots in the fall to people at increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness, regardless of the number of booster doses they’ve already received. That includes people 65 years of age and older, residents of long-term care or assisted living facilities, and those 12 years of age and older with an underlying medical condition that places them at high risk of severe COVID-19.

Neither Health Minister Adrian Dix nor provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry was available for an interview Thursday. Henry told CBC’s On The Coast last week that the remaining stock of COVID-19 vaccines in B.C. is being prioritized for the approximately 1.2 million eligible people who still haven’t gotten a booster shot.

“All adults need to get that third dose,” Henry said. “There’s about 1.2 million people in B.C. who’ve had two doses who have not got that first booster. I would encourage people to do that now so that we use up this vaccine before it expires, and really focusing the fourth dose, that extra boost, for those people who really need it.”

Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, said while he agrees that the priority should be giving millions of British Columbians their third dose, the province’s messaging around the fourth dose is out of step with other provinces and, as a result, is confusing.

Ontario, for example, is offering fourth doses to people age 60 and older and Indigenous people over 18 as long as it’s been at least three months since their first booster. In Quebec, anyone over 18 can get a fourth jab.

“I think it’s important that the public health authorities nationally, through the provincial and territorial leadership, get together and try and achieve some sort of consensus. That will be less confusing,” Conway said. “I think the risk of this current piecemeal approach to fourth doses is that it decreases confidence in the vaccine program in general.”

Nine per cent of Canadians, or about 2.9 million people, have received both COVID-19 booster shots, according to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada. About 44 per cent of Canadians 70 and older have received all four shots.

Compared to other provinces and territories, British Columbia has the second lowest percentage of individuals immunized with four doses at just over five per cent, the figures show.

B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said with hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses nearing their expiry date, the government’s approach defies logic.

“If there are hundreds of thousands of vaccine [doses] ready to be thrown away by this government, it doesn’t make sense that they aren’t making those four doses available to the people that want them,” she said.

— With files from The Canadian Press