Flu, COVID fall boosters coming to Alberta in mid-October

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: ‘Don’t wait’ to get vaccine if you are in at-risk group, WHO says'
COVID-19: ‘Don’t wait’ to get vaccine if you are in at-risk group, WHO says
Dr. Maria Van Kherkove, United Nations COVID-19 technical lead, said Wednesday that people should not wait to get a COVID-19 vaccine, especially if they are in an at-risk group. Kherkove said all vaccines currently in use are “protective” against COVID-19 variants that are in circulation – Sep 27, 2023

Alberta is ready to roll out its fall immunizations for airborne viruses like influenza and COVID-19.

“Being immunized for influenza and COVID-19 can help protect you and your loved ones, particularly those most at risk for severe disease. Taking steps to prevent viral infections will also improve an individual’s overall health,” chief medical officer of health Dr. Mark Joffe said in a statement.

On Thursday, the province announced doses can start going into arms on Oct. 16 and it will open fall appointments in the online booking portal for AHS clinics or pharmacies on Oct. 10. Appointments can also be made directly at community health clinics or by calling 811.

Albertans living in congregate care will have access to the shots on Oct. 2.

“Keeping up to date on your immunizations is an excellent way to protect yourself against the coming respiratory illness season. Doing what you can to prevent severe illness will also help secure our health care system for those who need it most,” Health Minister Adriana LaGrange said in a statement on Thursday.

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Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Health Canada approves Moderna’s Spikevax for use this fall'
COVID-19: Health Canada approves Moderna’s Spikevax for use this fall

But on Wednesday at an unrelated press conference, LaGrange and Premier Danielle Smith refused to comment on whether they would get a fall booster for COVID.

“I’m a healthy person. I tend to take care of my immune system. And I believe this is something I should talk about with my doctor and not media,” Smith said.

“I’m very healthy as well. I have a very healthy immune system. And you know what? I also believe that this is a personal decision for individuals to make,” LaGrange said.

Dr. Craig Jenne, immunology and infectious diseases professor at the University of Calgary, said while there is a known list of health conditions that put a person at higher risk of severe disease from a COVID-19 infection, that list isn’t absolute.

“We have seen otherwise healthy individuals get quite ill. And in fact, we’ve lost some Albertans that would be considered otherwise healthy,” he told Global News.

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The province advised people seek the advice of their doctor if they have questions about immunization.

On Thursday, a U.S. National Institutes of Health study found COVID-19 can infect coronary arteries directly, increasing plaque and the risk of heart attack and stroke.

“These are some of those other effects – so not necessarily COVID 19 itself – but maybe some of those longer term effects that do appear to be reduced risk in vaccinated individuals,” Jenne said.

He said influenza infections also result in a six-fold increase in the risk of heart attacks and stroke following a severe infection.

“These other problems are also protected in individuals that have had flu shots,” Jenne said.

Flu, COVID vaccines safe to take together

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) said anyone above six months of age can get an influenza vaccine and a COVID-19 shot at the same appointments.

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And an infectious disease physician Global News spoke to said “absolutely, you can get them together.”

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“We have data about co-administration of flu and COVID vaccine suggesting there’s fairly significant safety and there’s no compromise in the efficacy of the vaccines,” Dr. Zain Chagla of McMaster University said.

The Alberta announcement comes on the same day Health Canada approved Pfizer’s updated COVID vaccine.

Both that vaccine and the updated Moderna vaccine – approved by Health Canada earlier this month – are formulated to target the XBB.1.5 subvariant.

An Alberta Health spokesperson said the province currently only plans to have the updated Moderna vaccine available on Oct. 16, and will have more information about this round of vaccines as it becomes available.

Click to play video: 'Health Canada approves updated COVID-19 vaccine'
Health Canada approves updated COVID-19 vaccine

Jenne said early data shows the new formulations have an advantage.

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“The early data from these vaccines suggests that they do a better job of blocking total infection, the ability of the virus to enter our body,” the U of C professor said.

A University of Saskatchewan virologist said even if a person has received the bivalent booster, it’s still worth getting the updated shots.

“That’s going to provide people with two things. It’s going to provide them with a temporary boost in protection against infection,” Rasmussen said. “That’s going to be antibodies that booster elicits that are going to be more specific than the ones they already have from the vaccines they’ve had so far.”

More importantly, the vaccine will provide longer-lasting “additional protection against developing severe disease,” she said.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19, influenza vaccines available soon at Alberta pharmacies'
COVID-19, influenza vaccines available soon at Alberta pharmacies

But immunity wanes over time – so if it’s been six months or longer since you were last infected or boosted, then getting the updated vaccine is a good move to bring your protection back up this fall and winter, said Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, in a Sept. 12 news conference.

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In addition, the immunity-boosting effect of infection varies from person to person, said Rasmussen.

“If you got infected in the last year, you probably did get infected with one of the XBB subvariants. But for some people that will act like a booster (shot), but for other people it might not. And you don’t know which one you’re going to be,” she said.

“Getting that booster guarantees that you are going to have that extra protection.”

Risk of catching viruses ‘increased’: LaGrange

The vaccination announcement also comes at a time when “the risk of catching respiratory viruses has increased,” LaGrange said Thursday afternoon in an emailed update.

The health minister said the incidences of RSV and influenza have been “consistent” with this time of year.

Since Sept. 3, there have been 21 confirmed RSV cases. There’s also been 52 cases of influenza, 10 of which required hospitalization, but no intensive care admissions or deaths.

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She said between Sept. 3 and Sept. 23, there were 286 hospitalizations, 13 ICU admissions and 20 deaths of Albertans.

Data from the Public Health Agency of Canada shows the positivity rate in PCR testing in the province is also increased, going from 3.3 per cent on July 15 to 12.2 per cent on Sept. 16, a nearly four-fold increase.

Since early 2022, PCR testing in Alberta has been restricted to people with clinical risk factors or who live and/or work in high risk settings.

COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals and acute care settings in Alberta have also been increasing in the last month.

Since the end of August, the number of patients and hospital units involved in those outbreaks have more than doubled.

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The statistical dashboards for COVID-19 and influenza have not seen updates from the province since mid-July.

“Very soon we will be launching a refreshed dashboard with up-to-date data that will align reporting on respiratory illnesses including COVID-19, RSV and influenza,” LaGrange said in a statement.

That work was originally slated to be completed by Aug. 30.

While people wait for their fall vaccination, the province said there are a few ways people can protect themselves from illness on a daily basis, including:

  • Staying home when feeling sick
  • Avoiding close contact with sick people
  • Washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Avoiding touching eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands
  • Covering your cough and then cleaning your hands

The Public Health Agency of Canada also says the use of respirators, like certified N95 or KN95 ones, can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, guidance that matches with what aerosol scientists say about preventing airborne diseases.

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–with files from Katie Dangerfield, Global News, and The Canadian Press

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