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Canadians urged to catch up on vaccinations, prepare for fall boosters

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A jar full of empty COVID-19 vaccine vials is shown at the Junction Chemist pharmacy during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on April 6, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Federal health officials are bracing Canadians for another round of COVID-19 vaccines expected to roll out in the fall, and are urging those behind on their boosters to catch up now.

Canada's chief public health officer Theresa Tam says circulating Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are even more transmissible and able to evade immunity than previous versions, making a rise in cases likely in coming weeks.

She and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos are stressing the importance of up-to-date vaccination status, noting 40 per cent of Canadians still have not received a booster following their primary two shots, putting us behind other G7 countries when it comes to three doses.

Tam is also warning of a possible COVID-19 resurgence in the fall and winter, and says new guidance on a fall booster program should help reduce severe outcomes and ease potential strain on the health-care system.

In a release Wednesday, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization advised jurisdictions to prepare to offer another round of shots to people at increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness, regardless of the number of booster doses they've already received.

That includes people 65 years of age and older, residents of long-term care or living facilities, and those 12 years of age and older with an underlying medical condition that places them at high risk of severe COVID-19.

Ontario premier Doug Ford said Thursday morning that a plan was in the works in Canada's most populous province, but released no details.

"You'll hear further about our rollout in the next little while," Ford said.

The NACI recommendation also prioritizes adults in Indigenous, racialized and marginalized communities, as well migrant workers, and those in shelters, correctional facilities and group homes.

NACI also recommends that boosters be offered to all other individuals from 12 to 64 years of age regardless of the number of booster doses they have previously received.

Matthew Tunis, executive secretary of NACI, said Thursday that there is still uncertainty over when individuals should receive their fall booster, and exactly what the formulation will be. 

Tam noted new vaccines tailored to Omicron are in development but have not yet been evaluated by Canada's drug regulator. She said officials are still waiting for data on what new protection the so-called bivalent vaccines could offer.

In the meantime, she said there's no reason for Canadians to hesitate updating their shots.

"As cases go up, like BA.4 for BA.5, as indicated in some areas of Canada, getting that booster, if you haven't had it, now would be quite important, in particular going into the fall," said Tam.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2022.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press