British Columbia has entered its seventh pandemic wave of yet another Omicron subvariant, but won’t expand eligibility for second booster doses until the fall.
Currently, only people who are deemed clinically extremely vulnerable, those over 70 and Indigenous people over 55 are eligible for a second booster dose at least six months after their first in B.C.
Several experts have called for fourth doses for the general population to be moved up to blunt the rising hospitalizations and case numbers B.C. is seeing before the seventh wave of the BA5 subvariant reaches its predicted crest in late August.
But a day after Health Minister Adrian Dix confirmed B.C. was in its seventh wave, public health officials defended their decision to start second boosters in September amid waning population immunity and virtually non-existent public health protections.
Acting provincial health officer Dr. Martin Lavoie said waiting until mRNA vaccines tailored to Omicron are available will give British Columbians better protection against Omicron and future variants as the province heads into another respiratory season.
The virus “has evolved and our vaccines need to as well,” said Lavoie, the deputy provincial health office filling in for Dr. Bonnie Henry during her vacation. “We need to have a vaccine that is more closely related to what circulates so that it is more effective.”
Dix did say individuals who feel they need to get their second booster before the planned campaign can contact Immunize BC at 1-833-838-2323 to book it.
“If you feel like you need a booster now, one will be made available,” Dix said on Friday.
Evidence shows that protection against severe illness and death from COVID-19 afforded by vaccines wanes significantly after about three to four months, particularly against the Omicron subvariants that have been dominant in B.C. since December 2021.
“They (viruses) are hiding better and we need more of these antibodies to attack them,” Sarah Otto, a zoologist and member of the independent BC COVID-19 Modelling Group, told Postmedia. “That’s why the boosters matter, especially with Omicron.”
B.C.’s approach is consistent with guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, Lavoie and Dix stressed.
But the expert body also says people over 12 can be given a second booster and the interval between doses can be decreased to as little as three months if there is heightened epidemiological risk. Boosters are not yet recommended for children ages five to eleven.
Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have increased for the first time since early May. There are currently 369 people in hospital with COVID-19, up from 273 the week before.
And in the week ending on July 2, 24 more people died within a month of testing positive for COVID-19.
B.C. will continue to see a rise in cases and reinfections, Lavoie said, as the more transmissible BA5 variant replaces its BA2 sibling.
In their remarks, Lavoie and Dix said B.C. is in a better position than past waves, despite low booster uptake and waning immunity for this upcoming wave.
Only about 64 per cent of eligible people in B.C. have taken the fourth shot, making up just 5.2 per cent of the provincial population. B.C. has administered the fewest second boosters of any province in Canada — by contrast, Quebec has already given 13.2 per cent of people a second booster.
More than 91 per cent of eligible people have received two doses of the vaccine in B.C., but just 59.5 per cent of people have received a third shot. That means there are still 1.3 million without the renewed protection of a booster shot, and many more who are now months post-booster.
When asked by The Tyee about the risk calculation between giving non-tailored shots now or waiting for the Omicron-specific vaccines, Lavoie said it was about providing the most durable protection against current and future variants.
“What we don’t know and what NACI knows can happen, is we can have another completely different variant arise,” he said. “We have all these things we’re trying to balance.”
People over 80 are overwhelmingly the majority of hospitalizations, Lavoie said, and to a lesser extent, those over 70.
He said the effect of vaccinations and boosters on their immune system has been “maxed out” and did not answer when asked what the province could do to reduce transmission and circulation of the virus.
Dix encouraged those who had not received their first, second or third shots to book them soon, and Lavoie stressed the importance of staying home when sick and wearing a mask in crowded areas. “There are so many things people can do every day to reduce transmission,” he said.