B.C. residents will receive invitations as early as this week to book their COVID‑19 fall booster shots as the trajectory of the pandemic remains uncertain in the coming months.
Another surge of COVID infections is expected in November or December, about the same time influenza season is expected to make a strong comeback. Starting next month, people will be able to get their COVID-19 vaccination and influenza vaccination during the same appointment.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, announcing the COVID-19 fall booster program Tuesday, said it appears we are emerging from the pandemic but “we are not yet at a point where we can let our guard down, both here and globally.”
There remains significant spread around the world,” said Henry, so “we still have a very uncertain trajectory of the pandemic in the next few months.” A new variant of concern could emerge, she said: “It is clear that COVID-19 will be with us long term.”
Health officials are encouraging everyone five and older to get a COVID-19 booster at the recommended interval — six months from the last COVID vaccine, three months since the last COVID infection for people who are vaccinated, and as soon as possible for people who have been infected but remain unvaccinated.
“People who are not vaccinated, even if you’ve had an infection, we know you are at higher risk of being reinfected and higher risk of having more severe illness so you should be vaccinated on top of having had an infection,” said Henry.
People in long-term care or assisted living may be offered their COVID-19 booster through health authorities at five months to better co-ordinate with the influenza vaccination campaign.
The COVID-19 fall booster campaign will start as soon as Moderna’s bivalent vaccine — a combination of spike protein strains that target the original Wuhan virus and Omicron BA.1 subvariant — arrives.
The new vaccine was approved last week by Health Canada and is expected to arrive in B.C. by the end of this week.
The majority of cases in B.C. at this time are driven by the Omicron BA.5 subvariant.
While the United States is starting to distribute a bivalent vaccine targeting the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 strains, Henry said Moderna’s bivalent vaccine targeting BA.1 “stimulates a very strong immune boost against all of the Omicron strains, including BA.5” and it’s the one approved by Health Canada. The Omicron strains are not dramatically different she said.
Anyone 18 and older is eligible for the bivalent vaccine, which is also available to those who are 12 to 17 years old and designated clinically extremely vulnerable and considered high risk for serious illness from the virus.
Youth ages 12 to 17 with no health risks will receive regular COVID-19 vaccines, and children age five to 11 will continue to receive the pediatric Pfizer vaccine. Children age six months to four years are not eligible for a booster.
Dr. Penny Ballem, executive lead for B.C.’s immunization program, said there’s now COVID vaccines available for everyone six months and older and seven different types of vaccines available to adults and children. She encouraged the 1.3 million B.C. residents who have had only two COVID shots to get their booster now.
Pharmacies will be the first to administer the boosters, with mass clinics and health authority clinics scheduled to start up on Sept. 19.
As many as 1,100 pharmacies are expected to participate in the fall booster program and about 100 health authority clinics.
About 109,000 COVID-19 vaccines doses are expected to arrive this week, ramping up to 405,000 doses by Sept. 26.
By the last week of this month, vaccination capacity is expected to peak, with vaccines being given to a 250,000 to 280,000 people a week and that capacity will remain for about 10 weeks or “as long as demand is flowing,” said Ballem.
Priorities for the COVID-19 booster shots will be dictated by the time interval between when a person received their last vaccine and their risk of poor outcomes from contracting the disease. That includes people who are in long-term care and assisted living, people over age 60 but particularly over age 80, those who are homebound or clinically extremely vulnerable, First Nations, Métis, or Inuit adults, and people living in congregate settings or marginalized communities.
In B.C., there were 651 COVID-19 cases reported between Aug. 21-27, and 160 hospital admissions of which 25 were in critical care. Thirty-three deaths were reported.
Henry said the level of immunity in the community from vaccinations and infections have been a “gamechanger” in that B.C. no longer, likely, has to bring in broad measures like mask mandates and closures that caused so much disruption in the first two years of the pandemic.
Research is showing that people who are fully vaccinated and have been infected have what’s called hybrid immunity, a combination of immunity from vaccination plus infection which provides a high level of protection against the virus.
People who have already registered for COVID vaccination will receive an invitation to make an appointment for both COVID and flu vaccination.
Those who have not registered can do so through the province’s Get Vaccinated BC website, gov.bc.ca/getvaccinated. People can also call 1-833-838-2323 seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
If you recently arrived to B.C. you can submit your COVID-19 vaccination record (immunizationrecord.gov.bc.ca) to receive your invitation.