Ontario will offer a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine to people aged 60 and older with the province in the grips of a sixth wave.
While the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends that a fourth shot — in the form of a second booster injection — be made available to those aged 80 or older, the province has decided to lower the eligibility age, Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday.
“Our medical advisers recommended that Ontario … go to 60 to provide an added a level of protection,” Elliott told reporters after the latest NACI recommendations were issued earlier in the day. She also said the province is looking to make the antiviral drug Paxlovid more widely available.
Details on Ontario’s expanded booster eligibility — such as the time interval since the first booster — will be released Wednesday.
Epidemiologist Todd Coleman of Wilfrid Laurier University said the fourth dose decision should have come sooner “to blunt the wave” given that Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore warned weeks ago that infection levels would rise after most restrictions were lifted last month.
“I feel like we’re already a little late to the game,” he added.
The province is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the BA.2 sub-variant, which is about 30 per cent more contagious than the Omicron strain that surfaced before Christmas and caused a fifth wave of infections into January.
Cases confirmed by limited PCR testing are up almost 26 per cent in the last seven days. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 patients have risen 31 per cent in the same period, but remain within the capacity of the health-care system to handle.
A similar wave of BA.2 has hit the neighbouring province of Quebec, which Tuesday extended its masking requirement in indoor public spaces to the end of April.
“The virus is still circulating considerably,” said interim public health director Luc Boileau. “It’s responsible to do this.”
But Elliott maintained, as she did last week, that a return to pandemic restrictions is not needed. Ontario ended mandatory masking in most indoor public spaces and scrapped proof-of-vaccination certificates for entry into gyms, movies, bars, sports venues and similar settings in March.
“We’re watching very carefully, but Dr. Moore’s indicated that we don’t need to bring back the mask mandate,” she said. “It’s a matter of personal choice.”
Amid calls from opposition parties that Moore resume the regular weekly COVID news conferences that he stopped in early March, Elliott said “he’s free to do so.”
“We have to learn to live with COVID,” she added, noting Ontarians “have the tools” to cope with the virus, such as voluntary masking, vaccination, and Paxlovid, a drug that can help prevent serious illness in those who are infected.
“Many people are not aware of when they can obtain Paxlovid. We are going to be expanding our education process so that people will know,” Elliott said, pledging to make it more readily available in pharmacies and through doctors.
Deputy New Democrat Leader Sara Singh said the Paxlovid rollout has been “anything but smooth.”
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