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

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MONTREAL — Quebec health officials on Tuesday said they would begin expanding eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine boosters to people 70 and older and offered reassurances that two doses were still sufficient protection for most adults.

Third doses of mRNA vaccines would be available for people 70 and older this month, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé told reporters. Residents of any age who received two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, meanwhile, would also be eligible to book appointments for third doses in November, he added.

"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 said.

The government made the decision following recommendations by Quebec's immunization committee. And despite Health Canada announcing on Tuesday it authorized boosters for all adults across the country, 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 task force.

"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.

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.

Arruda said there is no need yet to give a third dose to people under 70 years old. "For the others that are healthy and under 70 … two doses are still a good thing," he said.

Dr. Jorg Fritz, an immunology professor at McGill University, said Tuesday he worries that by administering boosters to the general population, the government is reducing its logistical capacity to vaccinate kids.

"I think the biggest need in the pandemic right now is to roll out the vaccine for children aged five to 11," Fritz said in an interview Tuesday. "We are seeing more than 20 per cent across Canada are new cases in that age group.

"We all want to have social gatherings, with the year ending around the corner. We all want to be with our kids, grandparents and make visits. It should be the target population."

The federal government, however, hasn't yet authorized the COVID-19 vaccine for children. And Dubé said Quebec "has enough capacity to do both," referring to vaccinating kids and offering boosters to the general population.

"We want to vaccinate our children before December," Dubé said. "We want to make sure we do it either at schools or when parents come to a vaccination centre."

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.

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."

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.

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 were 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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