British Columbia

B.C. introduces 4th COVID-19 vaccine dose for those 70 and older and vulnerable groups

The rollout is aimed at the highest risk groups who are now coming on six months since their first booster shot (third dose) and who may be experiencing waning protection, especially from the Omicron variant. 

At-risk groups are coming on 6 months since their first booster and protection may be waning, officials say

Licensed practical nurse Femia Gabiana, left, administers a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine to a man at a walk-up vaccination clinic at Bear Creek Park, in Surrey, B.C., on May 17, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

B.C. has announced fourth doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for seniors over 70, long-term care residents and Indigenous people aged 55 and older, with the province just days away from removing the last of its pandemic health restrictions. 

As well, those who are considered clinically extremely vulnerable are now eligible for an additional booster dose.

The new booster program is aimed at the highest risk groups who are now coming on six months since their first booster shot (third dose) and who may be experiencing waning protection, especially from the Omicron variant. 

This is a really important measure for us," said Dr. Bonnie Henry. "We know that the older we are, the sooner the [COVID-19] antibodies will wane."

"An extra booster dose right now will provide a rapid increase in antibodies ... and will provide that spring protection as we get back to normal activities in the community."

The announcement is in keeping with the guidance of Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), which Tuesday recommended the "rapid deployment" of a second COVID-19 booster shot for those 80 and older. 

Henry said testing shows a high rate of antibodies in younger people, from both vaccination and/or having contracted COVID-19, but much lower levels in those over age 70.

She said at this time, a fourth dose is not being recommended for the remainder of the population. 

"It could be that we'll need an annual booster, maybe it will be for those at most risk. Those are the things we'll be looking at in the fall," she said. 

Fourth dose vaccination programs have already started at some long-term care homes and invitations for those who are eligible will be sent out shortly.

B.C. Care Providers Association CEO Terry Lake said the fourth dose is "very welcome news."

"We were really worried that there would be an open window there where immunity would start to drop off and we would see the virus start to ravage nursing homes again," he told All Points West host Robyn Burns. 

He said most care homes have the resources to roll out the fourth dose but will still require support from health authorities to help get everyone vaccinated.

B.C. Vax Card program ending

The news comes as B.C. gets set to end the B.C. Vaccine Card program effective Friday at 12:01 a.m. PT, with businesses able to transition from the COVID-19 safety plan to the less onerous communicable disease plan. The vaccine requirement for post-secondary school residents is also being lifted. 

(Province of B.C.)

According to data released by the province, unvaccinated people continue to account for the largest share of deaths, critical care patients and hospitalizations related to COVID-19.

Those who have not received a full complement of COVID-19 vaccinations — typically two full doses and a booster — are at a much higher risk than those who have. 

According to the latest number, 59 per cent of B.C. adults 18 and older have received a booster or third dose, while 91 per cent have two doses. Only 56 per cent of eligible children aged five to 11 have received their first dose.

Audience members arrive for a performance at the Queen Elizabeth theatre in Vancouver on March 24. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The highly contagious Omicron BA2 variant now accounts for 70-75 per cent of all new infections, according to Henry,  and is responsible for a recent uptick in cases. 

"We see from global data it's more infectious but does not cause more severe illness," she said. "Here in B.C., people who have had their booster up to age 70 have very strong protection against severe disease." 

Henry said the province is aggregating data on the vaccination status of health-care professionals which will be reported out publicly so individuals can make informed decisions about the private practitioners they receive care from. 

Hospitalizations due to the coronavirus spiked over the weekend, with nearly 50 more people in hospital compared to Friday. Information about new deaths has been delayed and the province says those numbers won't be available until Thursday.

Last week, independent COVID-19 modellers told CBC it's too early to say B.C. is in a sixth wave of rising cases, but urged residents to be cautious as cases started to trend upward. 

With files from Courtney Dickson