CORRECTION NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the most common currently circulating COVID variant is XBB.1.5. This is no longer the case and the story has been updated to reflect that. As the province rolls out its fall 2023 duo COVID-influenza vaccination campaign, the majority of British Columbians are overdue to shore up their viral defences by half a year.
Right now the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends people get an updated COVID vaccine every six months. The B.C. Ministry of Health follows this advice.
After the fall 2022 campaign, the most recent campaign should have come in the spring. But in early March the B.C. government said spring boosters were meant for folks at high risk of severe illness, including people older than 80, seniors in long-term care homes, Indigenous people older than 70 and anyone 18 and older who was moderately to severely immunocompromised. People 60 and older and Indigenous people 50 and older who had not yet had COVID were also eligible.
Only “vulnerable people” were sent invitations to get the spring booster through the provincial Get Vaccinated program, the Health Ministry told The Tyee in an email, although technically anyone in B.C. could have gotten the booster if it had been six months since their last shot.
Only around 10 per cent of the province got a “spring” booster between April and October 2023, and by the summer the Health Ministry says it was encouraging people to “wait until fall for the next COVID-19 shots as new formulations targeting the latest variants were before Health Canada for expected approval.”
British Columbians who live in northern B.C. may not be able to access their shots before December.
Vaccine-only strategy not working
These issues with vaccine access form part of the reason why B.C. shouldn’t be relying on just vaccines to protect people from the pandemic, says Lyne Filiatrault, a retired emergency room physician and member of Protect Our Province BC.
PoP BC is a grassroots group of health-care workers, health policy specialists and advocates who fall into the COVID-cautious group. They advocate for a Swiss cheese defence strategy, in which people use a combination of masking to protect against aerosols, improved indoor ventilation, widespread testing, vaccines and a more proactive approach to COVID.
“In B.C. we’re using a vaccine-only strategy, but the government doesn’t seem capable of rolling out a vaccine without any glitches,” Filiatrault said. While she was booking her own fall 2023 vaccine, she said, she spoke with multiple pharmacists who told her they were struggling with supply issues.
Filiatrault also criticized the province’s approach to the Get Vaccinated program, which requires that British Columbians register themselves to get updates about vaccination availability and book appointments. Requiring self-registration, she said, leads to low uptake for youth.
A BC Centre for Disease Control dashboard shows that by July 3, 2023, only 15 per cent of youth aged 12 to 17 had gotten four doses; 19 per cent of kids aged five to 11 had three doses; and 16 per cent of kids zero to four had two doses. These are the doses required for these age groups to be considered “fully vaccinated.”
The protection offered by vaccines also wanes over time, which Filiatrault said is why the BCCDC’s latest report noted COVID “deaths remain elevated among the 80-plus age group since [the week of Sept. 24-30].”
Deaths are a “lagging indicator” that shows COVID is already widespread in the community, Filiatrault said.
When to book your shot
Before you call 1-833-838-2323 or use the province’s online platform to book a COVID vaccine, think about the last time you were sick. If you recently had COVID, it’s best to wait a couple of months before getting the latest vaccine.
“The chance of getting COVID-19 again is low in the months after infection,” the BCCDC says on its website, adding “you can wait up to three to six months for your next vaccine dose. The immune response is better when there is more time between infection and vaccination.”
If you are currently sick with COVID, HealthLink BC recommends getting better before getting the vaccine.
If you got a text or emailed notification from the provincial Get Vaccinated program last year, you should get another one this year, inviting you when there’s availability to get vaccinated.
Vaccines are being distributed first to people older than 65, residents of long-term care facilities, people with underlying health conditions, pregnant people, health-care workers and first responders. It’s also important for anyone who is Indigenous to get vaccinated because they are at higher risk of serious illness because of health inequalities resulting from colonialism, the province notes.
But people can also jump ahead and call 1-833-838-2323 to request an appointment any time.
Get Vaccinated is encouraging people to get their flu and COVID vaccines during the same appointment to save them from taking two trips.
The COVID vaccine is created annually “to match as close as possible the strain of virus or viruses in circulation,” the Health Ministry told The Tyee. This is similar to how the annual flu vaccine is created, but the ministry said “it’s too early to say whether COVID-19 vaccines will become an annual vaccine.”
The Moderna and Pfizer mRNA vaccines available during the fall 2023 rollout are designed to protect people from the most common XBB.1.5 variants, also known as the “Kraken” variant. According to data from the World Health Organization, this is not the leading variant in Canada anymore, but officials say the vaccine still offers the best protection against current strains. These vaccines help reduce the severity of an infection, which therefore reduces a person’s risk of hospitalization or death and reduces the risk of long COVID. The province says mRNA vaccines offer the best protection out of all available vaccines.
There is a non-mRNA vaccine available in B.C. for people 12 years and older, known as Novavax. However, the updated Novavax vaccine is still being reviewed by Health Canada, according to the BCCDC’s website. The updated vaccine is predicted to be approved later this year.
Filiatrault says B.C. needs to do more testing and reporting of COVID cases. A virus forecasting database from COVID-19 Resources Canada predicts that from Oct. 21 to Nov. 3, 2023, around one in every 14 British Columbians will be infected with COVID.
With more testing and reporting the province could create a warning system similar to warnings about air quality produced during wildfire season, Filiatrault says. Except instead of suggesting that British Columbians stay indoors and avoid exercise, people could opt to wear a mask in crowded spaces and limit, where possible, time spent indoors around others.
Michelle Gamage, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee