British Columbia will not immediately follow Ontario’s lead in offering long-term care patients publicly funded doses of a newly developed vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, this season.
The province’s top public health official, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, told a media briefing Thursday that the province is awaiting guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization on the vaccine, and is still considering the implications of funding its use.
“We don’t yet have a program in B.C., and likely won’t for this season,” she said.
RSV causes a respiratory illness that is particularly dangerous to infants and the elderly. It came to broad public attention last year for contributing to a “tripledemic” of RSV, influenza and COVID-19 that pummelled hospitals, especially in the pediatric sector.
In August, Health Canada authorized Arvexy, an RSV vaccine produced by the pharmaceutical company GSK, for use on seniors. Shortly afterward, the Ontario government announced it would pay for the shot to be administered to people aged 60 years or older living in long-term care homes, elder care lodges and some retirement homes.
Anna Maddison, a spokesperson for Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, told The Globe and Mail earlier this month that the National Advisory Committee on Immunization doesn’t plan to issue recommendations on RSV vaccines for older adults this year.
In a statement, B.C.’s Ministry of Health noted that even if doses of RSV vaccine aren’t distributed by the provincial government this fall, they may still be available for purchase by seniors.
GSK has said that its vaccine will be available in pharmacies across the country to people with private drug insurance or the ability to pay the $230 out-of-pocket cost.
At Thursday’s briefing, provincial health officials said respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, are starting to ramp up for the season. Dr. Henry said B.C. will start a COVID-19 vaccination campaign in early October.
“We’re starting to see more COVID in the community, and I think that’s no surprise to people. We’re also starting to see other viruses that cause infections. We’re seeing a little bit of influenza, we have not seen much RSV yet, but those are the ones we’re looking for,” she said.
Hours before the briefing, Health Canada approved a new Pfizer-produced vaccine that targets the Omicron XBB.1.5 subvariant of COVID-19. The agency approved a similar vaccine produced by Moderna earlier this month.
Dr. Henry said these vaccines will be available to residents in long-term care as early as this week, and that the shots would be offered to the general public starting on Oct. 10.
“It’s really important that we get boosted – that we get this updated vaccine to protect us from infection with the viruses that are circulating,” she said.
Dr. Henry said XBB.1.16 and EG.5 are currently the most commonly identified COVID-19 subvariants in B.C.
So far, she said, the province has identified only one case of BA.2.86, the new Omicron sublineage that has COVID-19 researchers on high alert. That infection, the only one detected so far in Canada, was found in B.C.’s Fraser Health Region.
Dr. Henry noted that several influenza vaccines are approved for use in youth aged two to 17, including one administered as nasal spray. She said two enhanced vaccines for seniors over 65 years old will be available soon.
Influenza and COVID-19 vaccines will be available in many pharmacies, health-authority clinics and some primary-care providers’ offices throughout the province. They remain free and available to anyone aged six months or older. This includes enhanced influenza vaccines for seniors.
Dr. Henry also announced that medical masks will be again be mandatory in health care settings. Health care workers, volunteers, contractors and visitors in patient care areas will be required to wear them starting Oct. 3.