Bivalent booster for COVID-19 now available to adults in Alberta

Albertans can now roll up their sleeves for the COVID-19 bivalent vaccine but pharmacists are not expecting a frenzy for the new booster.

Moderna Spikevax shot offered at pharmacies, medical clinics as of Wednesday

A man in a white coat stands in a pharmacy aisle.
Yakoot Elhawash, owner and pharmacy manager of Pharmasave Westmount, says there is interest in the new booster but he does not expect it will garner the same interest as previous vaccines. (Pete Evans/CBC)

Albertans can now roll up their sleeves for the COVID-19 bivalent vaccine but pharmacists are not expecting a frenzy for the new booster.

Alberta Health announced last week it would start offering the booster to people 18 and older starting Sept. 21. Health Canada approved Moderna Spikevax at the start of the month.

The shot targets the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — and the more transmissible Omicron BA.1 variant. It also provides a strong immune response to the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.

Yakoot Elhawash, owner and pharmacy manager of Pharmasave Westmount in Edmonton, is expecting a busy opening day — but not the long lineups and crowds that packed his drug store for previous COVID-19 vaccinations.

He's had calls from a few dozen customers but expects uptake will be tempered. 

"There is quite a bit of interest in the new vaccine right now. Most people were asking for it," Elhawash said.

"But compared to the previous shots, there's not that amount of interest that we were expecting."

Albertans who have completed a primary series of earlier vaccines are eligible for the bivalent booster. However, people are advised to wait a minimum of five months from their last dose or COVID-19 infection before getting the shot.

People who may be at higher risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 may be considered for a three-month interval between vaccine doses, Alberta Health said.

Elhawash said some Albertans may be waiting for the right time to get the shot, or may be holding off to get it at the same time as the flu shot.

But relaxed restrictions and COVID-19 fatigue might also have an impact on booster uptake, he said. 

"It's maybe because of the requirements before, when people were asked to get the vaccine to do some activities, that requirement is not there anymore. So that is part of the equation," he said.

"It could also be some fatigue. People in general have gotten tired of the pandemic and want to leave it behind."

A man in a white coat stands in a pharmacy.
Edmonton pharmacist Mahmoud Sarhan is expecting a busy opening day for the new booster but says vaccine fatigue could impact uptake this fall. (Pete Evans/CBC)

Edmonton pharmacist Mahmoud Sarhan, a manager at Lansdowne Pharmasave, said dozens of customers have called to inquire about the new shot.

He doesn't expect the new bivalent vaccine will attract the same interest as previous boosters.

Many customers have told him they decided to delay their fourth-dose boosters until the bivalent shot becomes available, he said.

With more COVID-19, and other respiratory illnesses, expected to circulate this fall, Albertans need to protect themselves and others, Sarhan said. 

"I think at the beginning, when we had COVID, people were following the news about the prevalence of COVID in general. That's why people were rushing to get into it," he said.

"But, I think, with the fall and with getting colder weather, lots of people are going to start getting viral infections so they're going to start getting more of the vaccine at that time."

The bivalent vaccine is expected to be offered to Albertans aged 12 to 17 in late September or early October.

Starting the week of Oct. 3, the new booster — and the flu shot — will be offered to seniors in congregate care, Alberta Health said.

The bivalent vaccine will be available at participating pharmacies, community medical clinics and select Alberta Health Services clinics.

People living on First Nation reserves can get doses through nursing stations or public health clinics.

Appointments can be booked online or by calling Health Link at 811.

Appointments for a shortened interval of at least three months cannot be booked online. Some pharmacies can accommodate walk-ins.

COVID-19 update

On Wednesday, Alberta Health reported 24 new deaths related to COVID-19, bring the total to 4,872.

The province also reported a slight increase in the number of people in hospital with COVID — 843, up from 819 the week before. The number of people in ICU with the illness was steady at 26. 

In the most recent seven-day period up to and including Sept. 20, another 1,194 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed through PCR testing, up from 1,098 new cases reported last week. The number of new cases excludes positive rapid-test results.

Alberta's seven-day PCR test-positivity rate is 19.52 per cent, up from 16.94 per cent a week ago.

With files from Julia Wong