Quebec begins to make COVID-19 vaccine boosters available to general population

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MONTREAL — Quebec is expanding eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine booster doses to the general population aged 70 and older, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Tuesday.

Third doses of mRNA vaccines will also be available by the end of the month to residents who received two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, Dubé added. Those residents will need to wait six months from their second doses for a third shot.

"I want to reassure the population, it's not because we are worried about AstraZeneca, it's because we want to make sure there's an extra protection — especially after six months," Dubé told reporters.

The government made the decision following recommendations by Quebec's immunization committee. Despite Health Canada announcing on Tuesday it authorized boosters for all adults, Quebec said it would stick to its plan. Public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda told reporters the government preferred to follow the recommendations of its vaccine committee.

"Even if there is a recommendation from Canada, we refer almost all the time to our own committee because they are aware of our own epidemiology," Arruda said.

Starting Nov. 16, people aged 80 and older will be able to book an appointment for a third dose, followed by people 75 and up two days later and then residents 70 and older on Nov. 23. Residents of any age who received the AstraZeneca vaccine can start booking third doses on Nov. 25. All groups must wait six months since their second doses to book a third shot.

In late September, the province announced it would offer people in long-term care homes and seniors residences booster shots to prevent outbreaks among vulnerable residents. Since August, Quebec has offered a third dose of COVID-19 vaccine to people who are severely immunocompromised.

For the general population, protection from two doses after six months remains high — especially against severe infection and death, according to Dr. André Veillette, an immunologist at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute. Veillette, however, said protection will inevitably start to decline.

"Some people will say it’s not a problem, because of what we call memory cells," Veillette said in an interview on Monday. "That's when your antibodies are low, then the memory cells are activated if you get infected, and then a week later, they will make a lot of antibodies."

The problem, he said, is that for some people — and maybe eventually for everybody — a week of infection is too long to wait for the antibodies to kick in.

Veillette said the government's immediate priority should be identifying high-risk groups and giving them third doses. He also said he believes boosters will eventually be available for all Quebecers, even for young people.

"We have billions of doses in Ottawa waiting on shelves, and tens of millions more have been bought for next year by the government," Veillette said. "The vaccines are available."

Arruda, however, said there is no need yet to offer a third dose to people under 70 years old.

"For the others that are healthy, and under 70, there are no recommendations for a third dose," Arruda said. "Two doses are still a good thing."

Meanwhile, Quebec reported 545 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and six more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. Health officials said COVID-19-related hospitalizations dropped by six, to 219, and there were 45 people in intensive care, a drop of three.

The Health Department said 9,406 vaccine doses were administered in the previous 24 hours. Quebec's public health institute said about 90.8 per cent of residents aged 12 and older have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 88.2 per cent are considered adequately vaccinated.

Quebec has 5,219 active reported cases of COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 9, 2021.

Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press

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