By David Hains and Sneh Duggal
Ontario will expand its COVID-19 vaccine booster eligibility in a bid to get ahead of the mysterious Omicron variant.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore made the announcement, which had been teased earlier in the week, on Thursday afternoon.
It means that as of Dec. 13, people 50 and older will be eligible to book a booster shot for around six months after their second dose. More high-risk individuals, namely those receiving dialysis, will also be able to get a third dose eight weeks after their second shot, effective immediately. The province is also recommending that some transplant (hematopoietic cell and stem cell) or immunotherapy recipients start a new course of vaccinations due to a loss of immunity after such treatments.
The current eligibility for COVID-19 booster shots, which increases immunity as antibodies fade over time, is restricted to Ontarians 70 and over, Indigenous people, long-term care residents, immunocompromised individuals and people who received two AstraZeneca jabs. Moore said further expansion of eligibility would occur in January, but could be sooner.
So far, more than 696,000 booster or third doses have been administered in the province. This includes 20 per cent of those 70 and over. Around 5.7 million Ontarians will be eligible for a booster with the announced expansion.
The government made the case that expanding the booster eligibility will mean greater protection during the holidays and in the face of the new Omicron variant.
"The Omicron variant reminds us that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over," said Moore. He said while it's still unclear how effective the COVID-19 vaccines will be against Omicron, he expects there will be some protection.
"That science is not out yet, but we certainly think there'll be some evidence of protection," he said. "Giving maximum benefit to our current existing vaccines through a third dose strategy will, I hope, continue to protect Ontarians against the risk of Omicron and best protects us for its eventual entry into our communities."
Moore also tried to encourage people to book a third dose as soon as they're eligible since the window in which Omicron could become the dominant variant in Ontario might be shorter than the four months it took Delta to overtake Alpha.
"Even if we offer third doses in the next two months and boost those that haven't had an opportunity for their third dose in the next two months, I think that will adequately protect Ontarians if the vaccine remains effective against Omicron," he said.
Moore said the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine will also be available now for people 18 and over who are not yet vaccinated or have an allergy to the mRNA vaccines. Ontario has so far seen strong uptake for COVID-19 vaccines. As of Dec. 1, 90 per cent of Ontarians 12 and older had received one vaccine dose and 87.2 per cent had received two doses, according to the government, which said it was updating its reporting to newer Statistics Canada population estimates.
But there is a persistent 10 per cent that remains unvaccinated. Vaccines were just made available to children age five to 11 last week.
Vaccine boosters have been available in the United States for all adults since the Food and Drug Administration approved them for widespread use on Nov. 19. The Centre for Disease Control recommends the booster shots in order to improve COVID-19 protection.
The move on boosters comes days after widespread fears about the variant of concern dubbed Omicron emerged last week.
Five cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in Ontario, four in Ottawa and one in Durham, said Moore, adding that more cases are likely. Canada has implemented travel bans on foreign nationals if they have been to any of 10 identified African countries in the last 14 days. Earlier this week, the federal government also announced a new testing requirement for all air travellers who have been in another country other than the U.S., with a requirement that they isolate until they receive their test results.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said public health units are still following up with 375 people that were identified as having recently travelled to the original seven countries Canada imposed travel restrictions on to get them tested.
"We're doing the genome sequencing on all of these samples to understand exactly what we're dealing with, whether it's Omicron or Delta or any other variants," Elliott said. "We're following it very closely, because we want to make sure that they can capture any cases of Omicron that exist out there and do the necessary isolation, quarantine and any other work that needs to be done there."
Moore said many more individuals with recent travel to the additional countries have been identified and are being followed.
The Ford government has focused on encouraging the federal government to tighten border restrictions in response to the Omicron variant. The province also announced a few weeks ago a new testing strategy for the fall and winter as Ontario has seen an uptick in cases recently. There were 959 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Ontario on Thursday.
As part of the testing strategy, students will get five rapid antigen tests to take home during the holidays. The province also plans to launch a "holiday mobile testing blitz" for asymptomatic individuals in high traffic public areas.
Elliott said this is "being actively worked on because we want to make sure that people, if they need to go for testing, will be able to have that done very quickly and very easily."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the rollout of booster shots so far has been slow and uptake for vaccines among children has been low.
"Let's speed up the actual getting of the shots in people's arms, that needs to happen," she said. "Certainly we want to see the the boosters available to more people, but let's make sure that the people that are eligible now actually can get the shots or are being encouraged and supported to get the shots."
-With files from Charlie Pinkerton
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