Do you need a COVID booster for your summer vacation? Experts weigh in

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WATCH: COVID is no longer a global emergency. But what does that mean? – May 5, 2023

With summer officially kicking off in Canada this week, travel, weddings, BBQs and other social events are on the table. Should a COVID-19 booster be part of your summer holiday plans?

Experts who spoke to Global News say it’s a good time to get one if you haven’t already.

After more than three years of COVID-19, new cases have decreased or plateaued in Canada – and so has the vaccine uptake.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared in May that COVID-19 was no longer considered a global health emergency but cautioned that the virus still poses a threat.

Canada is in a “much better” place right now than before, yet COVID-19 is still a “significant contributor to hospitalization and death,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease physician at Sinai Health System in Toronto.

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And as the summer holiday period gets underway, it’s a “really good time” for Canadians to update their vaccine protection, especially if they’re travelling, when exposure to other people is highest, McGeer told Global News in an interview.

“If you’re planning to spend the summer travelling and you don’t want to spend three days with feeling miserable in some hospital somewhere, that’s a good reason to get your COVID booster,” she said.

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While more than 80 per cent of the population has received a primary series – two or more mRNA vaccine doses – the booster uptake remains relatively low this year in the country.

In the last sixth months, roughly 13 per cent of Canadians completed their primary series or got a booster dose, according to the latest available government data from May.

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Most people have existing immunity from either exposure to the virus, prior vaccination or both, said Dr. Samuel Gutman, an ER doctor in Vancouver and chief medical officer of Rockdoc Consulting Inc.

“There’s certainly a lot of fatigue amongst the population with regard to COVID,” he said in an interview with Global News.

But the decision to vaccinate against an infectious disease like COVID-19 is an “important one,” given that there are still some risks for the general population, he added.

What does the official guidance on boosters say?

Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommends a booster dose six months after the last dose of a primary series or COVID infection – whichever is later – for everyone aged five years old and up.

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But so far, (NACI) has only recommended additional COVID-19 booster shots for those who are at an increased risk of severe illness, including seniors, long-term care residents and immunocompromised adults.

The recommended time to get a booster is at least six months after the last COVID-19 vaccine dose or infection because immunity wanes over time, according to NACI.

McGeer said getting a COVID-19 vaccine is “not as critical as it once was,” but it still offers a significant amount of protection.

For younger and otherwise healthy adults, a booster shot is like “buying insurance,” said McGeer, that could help protect both them and other older, immunocompromised people they interact with.

Will Canada get a new bivalent vaccine?

NACI released new interim COVID-19 guidance this month, saying that the bivalent Omicron vaccine could be given to people aged six months and older who have yet to be vaccinated with a primary series.

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The Omicron-containing vaccine was previously approved as a booster.

“As regulatory submissions are submitted and reviewed by Heath Canada in the coming months, vaccine schedules and/or dosages may change for some age groups,” NACI said in its June 9 update.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant is still circulating in Canada, but it has undergone multiple mutations.

New Omicron recombinant strains named XBB, which are growing nationally and worldwide, now make up a majority of the COVID-19 cases detected in Canada.

The bivalent vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that are available in Canada right now target the BA.1, BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of Omicron that were most common last year.

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In the United States, scientific advisers to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are endorsing updating COVID-19 vaccines to target the latest Omicron strains.

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The FDA is leaning toward picking a fall shot recipe that targets just XBB. The hope is that the XBB variants are different enough to spark the immune system to make more diverse, cross-protective virus-fighting antibodies.

The World Health Organization’s vaccine advisers and European regulators recently made similar recommendations.

McGeer said the bivalent boosters from last year are still effective against current strains that are circulating, but a shift toward an XBB-containing booster in the fall will give more protection against the virus.

It is likely that Canada will need another COVID booster campaign in the fall, when respiratory viruses make a comeback, said McGeer. But it remains to be seen which vaccines will be used for that.

“We want to change and decide on the booster at the last possible moment and we’re at the last possible moment because it takes about three months to make vaccines and have them ready to go,” she said.

People who are interested in getting a COVID-19 booster in Canada can book an appointment through their local pharmacies and some family doctors.

with files from The Associated Press

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