More boosters are coming, and not a moment too soon. While the world waits to learn more about the Omicron variant, two sources confirm that on Thursday, Ontario will announce an extension of eligibility for third-shot boosters to anyone 50 years and older, with an expected opening date in mid-December.
It may be late; it does not solve all problems, for nothing does. But it’s a welcome move.
By Ontario standards, this counts as lightning fast. Omicron’s detection was announced by the World Health Organization last Friday; for Ontario to announce a significant and useful policy change within a week, even though the policy itself is delayed, was something in the direction of agility.
But even without Omicron, the Delta variant was already searching several regions of the province, and Ontario as a whole has been growing exponentially for several weeks; In Europe, the sky-high number of cases of COVID-19 was also followed by increased hospitalizations, and there are approximately 350,000 unvaccinated people over the age of 50 in Ontario. Data from other countries have shown that immunity given by two doses of a vaccine erodes around the six-month mark, although it may be longer depending on the interval between shots. Ontario data had just begun to show declining in the 50-plus category; the province’s threshold for a third shot is 168 days after the second, and that will probably apply here.
One source said Ontario is also likely to accelerate access to third-shot boosters for the rest of the population: at present, that is unlikely to happen until the new year. The National Advisory Council on Immunization is expected to announce expanded guidance on boosters on Friday.
It will not be easy, because the province had no plans for this. Two sources said an actual date for 50-plus shots remains fluid – if daily new vaccinations remain slow, it could open up more capacity in the immunization system, and a scheduled date of December 13 could be moved up. There are about four million Ontarians between the ages of 50 and 69; it takes about a week after a third dose to increase immunity, but most eligible citizens will not be boosted in time until immunity rises before e.g. Christmas. Again, the virus does not own a calendar.
It can be difficult. The immunization system has already been rejected by doctors returning to their practices, burnout and lack of staff at the public health level and the closure of several mass vaccination centers. The province has approached pharmacies to fill the gap – family doctors do not appear to be a big part of the plan – but the province has also opened vaccinations for five-to-11-year-olds and over 100,000 amazing eligible children have had their first shot. Premier Doug Ford has done very little to push vaccination beyond a mandate for long-term care and has barely tweeted about vaccination for over a month. But he pushed for vaccination on Wednesday, just a little.
“If you have not already done so, get vaccinated today,” Ford said, announcing a previously announced hospital in Mississauga. “If you delay your second dose, please get your second dose. And if you are eligible for your third dose, book your booster time as soon as you can.”
Ontario had already opened up to third-shot boosters for those over 70, for health professionals, for natives, Métis and Inuit and their household members, and for those who received two shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine or a dose of Johnson & Johnson. Ontario has approximately four million doses in freezers, daily new vaccinations remain limited, and third doses have not moved rapidly in the population over 70.
There are still concerns that some mutations in the Omicron variant may result in vaccine evasion, but at a briefing on Wednesday, WHO chief researcher Dr. Soumya Swaminathan that with the proviso that the data is still in its initial stages, “we believe that vaccines will still protect against serious disease that they have against the other variants.”
We live in hope. At the same briefing, COVID technical manager Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove that the question of increased transmissibility would be answered in the coming days, and the severity of the disease has not been determined. But she also said: “Everything we can do for Delta, which is world-dominant, must be used and strengthened for Omicron.”
Exactly, and vaccines top the list. Hopefully the news about Omicron will be positive, but this pandemic remains a societal challenge, every day, and also a personal one. A strong public information campaign on boosters would be welcome. A more durable infrastructure on vaccine passes, mandates and delivery can be a must. We can do better to protect people.
But the boosters are coming, and if you are justified, it’s worth finding you a deal and protecting yourself.