Newfoundland and Labrador Public Health has expanded eligibility for another COVID-19 booster to anyone five years old and up who hasn't had a dose in the last 20 weeks, regardless of how many previous doses they've had.
In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, provincial chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said anyone who fits the new criteria should get a booster.
"The evidence shows that a longer interval of 20 weeks between doses provides more long-lasting protection against severe disease than a shorter interval," Fitzgerald said.
Cold and flu season is approaching, noted Fitzgerald, and it will be the first since the winter in three years without public health restrictions. She said any booster administered on or after Sept. 21 will be considered a fall or winter COVID-19 vaccine.
She said Public Health anticipates a COVID-19 surge later this fall but isn't seeing any signs of increased infections yet.
Fitzgerald said for people who have had COVID-19, the booster will help create "hybrid immunity."
Bivalent vaccine available for groups at increased risk
Fitzgerald said Newfoundland and Labrador this month will receive about 63,000 doses of Moderna's bivalent vaccine, which specifically protects against the Omicron variant of COVID-19 — the primary variant circulating in the province.
Moderna submitted the vaccine for people age 18 and older, but Health Canada has authorized the vaccine for "off-label" use in people age 12 and up. Fitzgerald said the bivalent vaccine uses mRNA technology like the previous vaccines, and has the same dosage.
"The only difference is the coding on the spike protein that is in the vaccine," she said.
Fitzgerald said companies submit products based on their own studies, and Health Canada makes its own assessment.
"There are many, many, many things that we use that are what we call 'off label,'" she said.
She said due to the limited supply, Public Health will initially offer the vaccine only to groups at increased risk of COVID-19.
Even a booster with that ancestral strain, it still gives you really good protection against severe disease. - Dr. Janice Fitzgerald
"We will expand this eligibility when we have sufficient supply, which we hope to be able to do in the very near future," she said,
The groups eligible for the bivalent vaccine include adults age 65 and older; residents of long-term care or congregate living facilities; people 12 and older with underlying medical conditions; adults in some First Nations, Inuit, Métis communities; and adults in some marginalized or vulnerable communities.
Fitzgerald said Public Health is asking pharmacists and physicians to ensure clinics are fully booked before ordering the bivalent vaccine. She said bivalent vaccinations will begin on Sept. 21.
Fitzgerald said Public Health is looking to gauge uptake before expanding eligibility for the bivalent vaccine to everyone age 18 and older. In the meantime, Fitzgerald is still recommending everyone else get the original Pfizer and Moderna vaccine.
"Even a booster with that ancestral strain, it still gives you really good protection against severe disease," she said.
She said almost 80 per cent of people in their 60s, 95 per cent of people in their 70s and 89 per cent of people age 80 and older have received a third COVID-19 vaccine.
"We're seeing good uptake of the booster," she said.
Two more deaths
Meanwhile, two more people have died in the last week due to COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Both people were 80 years old or older and living in the Eastern Health region.
N.L.'s total number of deaths since the pandemic hit in March 2020 is now 236.
Hospitalizations have risen slightly from three to four since last week's update. There is no one in critical care.
The province also reported 116 more cases of COVID-19 in the last week: 22 on Thursday, 21 on Friday, 14 on Saturday, 13 on Sunday, eight on Monday, 14 on Tuesday and 24 on Wednesday.
Those numbers, however, don't reflect the true spread of the virus since the province restricts PCR testing and counts only positive cases from tests administered by its health authorities.