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Quebec COVID-19 booster rates stay low as province launches new vaccination campaign

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A person gets the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination at a mobile clinic, Friday, April 30, 2021, in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — As Quebec prepares to launch a provincewide COVID-19 vaccination campaign ahead of a potential new fall wave, it's unclear whether it will be enough to prompt a pandemic-weary public to roll up their sleeves for another booster.

As of Wednesday, only 56 per cent of Quebecers aged five and older had received a third vaccine dose — a number that has hardly budged in months. Government officials have said that the low booster uptake is due to the fact that millions of Quebecers have caught the novel coronavirus and consider themselves adequately protected.

Health experts, meanwhile, say pandemic fatigue and government communication have also played a role.

Dr. Don Vinh, an infectious diseases specialist at the McGill University Health Centre, points the finger at the provincial government's messaging. Vinh says the government should have more strongly promoted boosters over the past six to eight months instead of making a big push at a time when the current wave of COVID-19 is waning. 

If there had been a "consistent and clear" advisory on boosters, "more people would have been protected and all the consequences of the infection over the last few months would have been avoided," he said in an interview.

Jason Harley, an associate professor in the department of surgery at McGill University, believes many people have shifted to a "post-COVID mentality" that leads them to stop listening to public health advice. After two years of the pandemic, worry has changed to overconfidence.

"A lot of this has to do with exhaustion with the pandemic," they said in an interview.

"It has been over two years, and there was a tremendous amount of anxiety that a lot of people were living with on a day-to-day, sometimes hour-to hour-basis, so it's it's normal and reflexive that people would look for ways to feel better," said Harley, who is also has a PhD in educational psychology.

The challenge, Harley said, is to convince people to continue to protect themselves and listen to guidelines, which requires connecting to people through clear, easy-to-follow public health messaging. 

That's something that isn't always easy when people are on "different timelines" because they've become eligible for boosters at different stages of the pandemic, they said. There are also differences between how provinces communicate on COVID-19, and even on who is eligible for boosters.

Health Minister Christian Dubé on Tuesday acknowledged that booster rates had "stalled," but he attributed the phenomenon in large part to the fact that so many people have been infected with COVID-19 in recent months. He told a news conference that 88 per cent of the most vulnerable age cohort — those over 60 — have received their third dose.

Nevertheless, he said all adults should get a booster if it's been five months or more since their last shot, or three months since they were infected with the novel coronavirus. Dubé said vaccine appointments will open for people 60 and older next week and for everyone 18 and up on Aug. 29. Quebec started offering fifth doses of COVID-19 vaccine to residents of long-term care homes and private seniors residences on Monday. 

Caroline Quach-Thanh, a microbiologist and the president of Quebec's immunization committee, told the same news conference there was a chance that new vaccines under development will provide longer immunity. The current offerings provide good protection, "but in terms of durability, the long-term response isn’t there," she said.

Vinh suggested Quebecers need to get used to the idea of getting regular COVID-19 shots, at least for now. Vaccines still protect very well against serious disease and death, he said, but it's now clear that people will need periodic boosters to maintain immunity.

While some people might be tired or say "we're vaccinating too much," people should instead think of vaccines like any other drug, Vinh said.

"There are drugs you give every day or two, or three times a day, and you know why?

"Because the effect of that drug wears off and it's time for the next dose." 

Another microbiologist praised the Quebec government's booster campaign, and especially the decision to drop the terms "fourth" or "fifth" dose of vaccine in favour of calculating the amount of time that has elapsed since the last shot. 

Anne Gatinol believes people will get boosters but need a nudge.

"I found out that if people are not encouraged to do it, they just don't do it," the McGill professor in experimental medicine said in an interview.

Both she and Vinh agree that the government is doing the right thing in offering boosters to everyone 18 and older, even though some jurisdictions such as the United States are limiting them to older and vulnerable people. 

The health experts note that young people can still get very ill from COVID-19 even if they are less likely to die from it, and they say vaccines can help protect both individuals and the health system.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2022. 

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press