B.C. is set to jump aboard the booster bandwagon in a bid to stave off further COVID-19 infections.
The province said Tuesday the new booster-shot campaign will take a phased approach for those 12 and older, beginning this month and extending through to May 2022.
These third doses will be made available to British Columbians who already received their second doses at least six to eight months prior.
“The protection we get from these vaccines wanes a little over time but it doesn’t fall off a cliff,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said during a Tuesday briefing.
“We got good, strong immunity for most people but some who got their doses early … those are the people at higher risk of having decreased protection by now.”
The timing will depend on recipients’ ages and risk levels, while vaccines will also be made available concurrently for children five to 11, pending approval from Health Canada.
Higher-risk populations are considered to be those ages 70 years and older, as well as Indigenous populations in rural locations, residents in long-term-care and assisted-living, the immunosuppressed and health-care workers who received their initial two doses at a shorter interval than the general population.
Some of these groups began receiving boosters last month and the new campaign will focus on others in those groups through to December.
The government estimates it will begin administering boosters in January to those considered clinically extremely vulnerable (but not immunosuppressed), health-care workers in long-term-care and assisted-living, health-care workers in the community and then the remaining general population 12 and older.
“It may be that this third dose, this booster dose, gives longer-lasting protection that may last for years. That is our hope but we don’t yet know that,” Henry said.
“We’re going to be following the data around the world.”
While mass vaccine clinics were a staple during the initial campaign, pharmacies will be drawn into the fold to help administer the booster shots.
About 85% of B.C.’s 1,300 pharmacies are expected to be able to offer doses. While those outlets were not used in the initial vaccine rollout due to the need to have COVID-19 vaccines stored at ultra-cool temperatures, the Pfizer product has since been revealed that it can be stored at typical fridge temperatures for up to 30 days.
Dr. Penny Ballem, executive lead for B.C.’s immunization plan, said this change would allow a more diverse field of health-care professionals to participate in the new campaign.
Last week in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled new booster recommendations for recipients of the Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. The AstraZeneca plc vaccine has not been approved for use south of the border, although other countries, such as Canada and the U.K. have been using it throughout their respective vaccine campaigns.
But British Columbians who initially received the AstraZeneca vaccine will only be offered mRNA vaccines — either Pfizer or Moderna.
Mixing and matching vaccines has been an accepted practice in B.C. and Canada throughout much of the vaccination campaign, but was only given the nod in the U.S. earlier this month.
Invitations for the booster shot will be sent to those registered through the Get Vaccinated program.
Drop-in vaccinations will not be permitted for people wishing to get their second dose or their booster dose.
British Columbians’ status regarding the B.C. vaccine card as well as mandates aimed at health-care workers will not be affected if they choose not to get a third dose.
Meanwhile, Tuesday marks the day upon which all health-care workers must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face being placed on unpaid leave ahead of the prospect of losing their jobs. Unvaccinated workers have until November 15 to get their first dose while they are on unpaid leave.
Among the province’s 126,343 health-care workers, nearly all (119,627 workers) are fully vaccinated, while 2,626 vaccinated are partially vaccinated. There are 4,090 health-care workers who have not received any doses.
“All of us are very solemn about this moment. The requirement to get vaccinated is an absolute necessity in our healthcare system,” Health Minister Adrian Dix said, adding those workers will have the opportunity to return to their jobs if they get vaccinated.