Ontarians who haven’t had COVID boosters need to get them now, top doctor warns

Ontario’s top doctor is firing shots in the COVID-19 arms race, calling on the millions of eligible Ontarians who have not had a first or second booster to get them as soon as possible amid a seventh wave that began June 19.

Second boosters for the general population under age 60 remain are on hold until more people get their third or fourth vaccinations, chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore told the Star as the highly contagious and more immune-evasive BA.5 sublineage of Omicron now accounts for 65 per cent of all cases.

“With five million Ontarians still needing their first booster and 1.6 million their second booster, we still have a lot of work to do before we open it up even further,” Moore said Wednesday.

Getting updated shots will make it less likely people contract COVID.

“We want them to enjoy their travel safely and to remain protected,” Moore added.

Of the five million eligible for third shots — their first booster — one million are age 50 or over and at higher risk of severe illness from waning immunity.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have risen 29 per cent in the last week to 695 people with 109 in intensive care as of Wednesday. That’s up by 157 and 21 patients since June 29. There are 45 ICU patients now on ventilators to help them breathe.

“The best means of protecting our health system, to protect our hard-working physicians and nurses in the front lines, is to stay up to date,” Moore said, noting the government will make a decision on fourth boosters for those under 60 in “the near future.”

COVID waves generally last eight weeks, Moore said, which means this one could continue into mid-August.

A number of doctors have gone public in recent weeks on the need for a broader fourth dose strategy with infections rising and COVID expected to flare up again in the fall as more activities head indoors where it is easier for the virus to spread.

“It’s a good day to get vaccinated with the dose you are eligible for … BA.5 is here,” University Health Network infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch tweeted on Canada Day.

Quebec has already opened fourth shots to anyone over 18.

“Experts are sounding the alarm that it’s time to start moving on second boosters,” said Interim NDP Leader Peter Tabuns. “It is time for (Premier) Doug Ford to tell Ontarians what the plan is for expanding access to fourth doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

While there is no advertising campaign to get more third and fourth doses into arms, Moore said memos are being sent this week to Ontario’s 34 regional public health units, hospitals, pharmacies and primary care clinics to encourage them to ask patients if they’re up to date on their COVID shots — and if not, to answer any questions they have and arrange injections.

BA.5 is more likely to reinfect people who have previously had Omicron because of its immune evasion properties. Some experts say antibodies from a previous Omicron infection last only three months.

Moore said the rise in hospitalizations is mostly “preventable” if people are up to date on their shots.

“We all need to realize that the health system is getting stretched, that the emergency department wait times are going up.”

A fall strategy for COVID boosters is also in the works, with new bivalent vaccines designed to provide increased protection from Omicron.

No new public health measures are in the works but Moore said he continues to wear a mask on the subway and in indoor public places.

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