New Brunswick

Omicron-specific COVID-19 booster eligibility expands, flu shots begin Tuesday

Starting Tuesday, New Brunswickers 18 and older will be eligible to get the Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine booster if five months have passed since their last dose or infection, and annual flu shots will also become available that day.

People 18 and older now eligible for bivalent booster, flu shot recommended for everyone 6 months and older

The flu shot can be safely administered at the same time as the COVID-19 vaccine, says Public Health. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Starting Tuesday, New Brunswickers 18 and older will be eligible to get the Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine booster if five months have passed since their last dose or infection, and annual flu shots will also become available that day.

"As the weather becomes cooler and people spend more time indoors, there are more chances to spread viruses," Dr. Yves Léger, the acting chief medical officer of health said in a statement.

"Vaccination remains the best way to prevent severe symptoms of COVID-19 and influenza."

Until now, only New Brunswickers 50 or older, those aged 12 to 17 who are immunocompromised or have a high-risk medical condition, and those aged 18 or older who live in a First Nations community have been eligible for a bivalent booster.

Moderna's Spikevax has been the only such booster available. It targets both the original coronavirus and the Omicron variant BA.1 that emerged late last year and drove the largest wave of infection and hospitalization in the pandemic.

Pfizer's new bivalent approved

On Friday, Health Canada approved Pfizer's new bivalent COVID-19 vaccine, which targets the original virus as well as the strains now most common in New Brunswick and across the country — the highly transmissible Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5.

Of the province's most recent random samples sent for sequencing, six per cent were Omicron BA.4 and 94 per cent were Omicron BA.5.

The updated version of the Pfizer-BioNTech Comirnaty COVID-19 vaccine is authorized for use as a booster dose in people 12 years of age and older.

CBC has asked the Department of Health for information about the new bivalent, such as how soon it will be available in the province, and whether people will be given a choice between the two, and is awaiting a response.

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, said Friday that he's confident there will be enough of both vaccines to meet Canadian demands.

"If we talk about the Moderna B1 vaccine, there are 10.5 million doses in the country now," he said. "If we are talking about the new Pfizer vaccine, we're expecting next week to have delivery of doses.

"We have a contract for some 12.6 million doses … and between the two I think it's enough in the meantime to cover the expected demand for booster doses."

The Moderna bivalent has proven popular to date, according to Léger. The number of doses administered jumped by more than 4,000 in the past week to just over 6,200, he told CBC on Tuesday.

People with risk factors should consider additional preventive measures, such as avoiding or limiting time spent in crowded or poorly ventilated indoor places, minimizing close contact with anyone who has cold-like symptoms, and continuing masking, physical distancing and frequent handwashing, said Dr. Yves Léger, acting chief medical officer of health. (Submitted by Dr. Yves Léger)

"We strongly recommend New Brunswickers stay up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines, including getting a fall or winter booster … regardless of how many COVID-19 vaccine doses they have had in the past," said Léger.

"This is especially important for those most at risk of severe outcomes of COVID-19," he said, including people who are 50 or older, immunocompromised, have chronic conditions, or are not fully vaccinated and boosted, if eligible.

As of Tuesday, 22.1 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received a second booster, 53.7 per cent have received a first booster, 85.4 per cent have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and 90.5 per cent have received one dose.

Booster doses are available at select pharmacies across the province and at Public Health clinics in some areas.

Some pharmacies offer online scheduling, while others require people to call to book an appointment. A list of participating pharmacies is available online.

Flu season warning

The flu shot can be safely administered at the same time as the COVID-19 vaccine, Public Health advises.

Léger reiterated the province is expected to see increased influenza activity this year, following two years of relatively low numbers.

With fewer people opting to get a flu vaccine over the past two years because of a lull in influenza cases, and the end last spring of COVID-19 protective measures, such as masking and physical distancing, more people are at a heightened risk of getting the flu, according to experts.

Australia's 2022 influenza season also offers some clues of what could be in store in New Brunswick. The flu hits Australia first ,and infections there were higher than the five-year average — with infections notably spiking, then dropping, earlier than usual.

Getting immunized against the flu will help to reduce the potential strain on the health-care system, the Department of Health says.

New Brunswick had 442 cases of the flu last season, which ended Aug. 27, compared to one in 2020-21. Of those, 92 people were hospitalized and five died. (Shutterstock)

The flu shot is recommended for all New Brunswickers aged six months and older, with a higher dose for those 65 or older.

It will be available for free at several pharmacies, as well as through primary care providers, such as physicians, nurse practitioners and public health nurses.

Out-of-province students can get their flu shots through student health services at their respective post-secondary institutions. New residents and non-residents without a medicare card can get flu shots free of charge from a pharmacist.

It can take up to two weeks before the vaccine provides protection against the flu.

The 2022-23 flu season began Aug. 28, but as of Friday, the Department of Health was unable to provide any statistics.

The first influenza report for the season is scheduled to be published "soon," said spokesperson Adam Bowie.

"Due to low activity at this point in time, the influenza reports are currently issued monthly," he said in an email.

New Brunswick has already seen an unusual resurgence of the flu, with about 400 cases documented over the summer, raising the 2021-22 season total to 442, as of Aug. 27.

Ninety-two people were hospitalized during the season and five died.

In 2020-21, only one flu case was reported across New Brunswick, with no hospitalizations and no deaths.

By comparison, in 2019-20, at the beginning of the pandemic, there were 2,351 cases provincewide. And in 2018-19, pre-pandemic, 3,008.

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