British Columbians are being urged to roll up their sleeves this fall as the province gears up for its next COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
The messaging comes after the first Canadian case of the new BA.2.86 variant, which contains more than 30 mutations of the virus, was discovered in B.C.’s Fraser Health region.
“If you thought that COVID was gone, this is a reminder that COVID never left,” Dr. Brian Conway, medical director at the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre said Wednesday.
So far, just one case of the new variant has been detected, and B.C. officials say that while it may prove better at evading the immune system there is no evidence yet that it causes more severe illness.
But the variant’s arrival comes amid concerns a new fall uptick in cases driven by the currently dominant EG.5 and XBB Omicron 1.16 subvariants may already be manifesting.
“I don’t think we’re in waves anymore, we see surges that come and go, and we’ve seen that over the last year … this is becoming a more settled pattern,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told Global News Morning.
“We still don’t know everything about it yet, and we don’t know about the seasonality, but over the last couple of years we have seen that there is an increase in respiratory illness as we go into the fall.”
That anticipated surge, however, raises questions about how prepared the province is amid the public’s potentially waning immunity to the virus as time passes from their last booster shot.
Federal health data shows that while more than 83 per cent of British Columbians have had two doses of the vaccine, just 11 per cent had received a shot in the first half of this year.
Data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control also showed immunization progress has slowed.
Just one in three British Columbians has had a full series of four doses, a figure that falls to just over one in five in the Northern Health region.
And with the return to school just around the corner, data shows just 43 per cent of kids aged five to 11 have had two doses of vaccine, with fewer than three per cent of kids in that age group vaccinated in the first half of this year.
“I think we need to think about this as what we need to be prepared for as we go back to school, as we spend more time indoors, in the world that we’re in now — this is part of how we go into respiratory season in the future,” Henry said, adding that people can take the same steps to protect themselves from COVID as they do for other seasonal illnesses like influenza and RSV.
“We can’t stop this virus from coming but what we can do is take all those preparations we usually do as we go into the fall.”
Those precautions include wearing a mask in crowded indoor situations or if feeling unwell following careful hygiene practices, and crucially, staying home if you aren’t feeling well, she said.
It also means signing up to get a booster shot when the latest vaccine, formulated to the currently dominant Omicron strains, is approved for use by the federal government, Henry said, likely towards the end of September, around the same time B.C. will be mounting a flu vaccine campaign.
“Our first line of defence is still going to be vaccination. This new vaccine will protect against omicron type strains quite well, especially when it comes to severe disease,” Conway said, adding that booster doses are likely to become a regular part of fall.
“There was a flu pandemic in 1918 — we’re still getting yearly flu shots. So let’s make this as normal as we can and go on with our lives in endemic COVID.”
The National Advisory Council on Immunization has recommended a fall booster shot, particularly for those over the age of 65, who live in long-term care homes, who are pregnant, or who are at high risk from other underlying medical conditions.
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