Inadequate messaging about the importance of getting an updated COVID-19 vaccine could lead to more severe outcomes this fall and winter, particularly among those who are elderly, pregnant or who have other vulnerabilities, some experts say as cases and hospitalizations creep up.
Sabina Vohra-Miller, founder of Unambiguous Science, an online platform that aims to provide important information about COVID and other health issues said she receives around 100 messages a day from people looking for information on the updated vaccine that offers protection against the subvariants that are currently dominant.
“There is a lot of confusion with the vaccine rollout this year,” said Ms. Vohra-Miller, who is also a doctoral student at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “Going into our third vaccine season, we should have been better prepared for all these scenarios and we’re not.”
Many of her followers have young children, and it’s been particularly challenging for them to find information or vaccine appointments because of low uptake in kids, which has led some pharmacies or doctors offices to no longer offer it: “They are eager to get the vaccine, but they don’t know where to get it.”
COVID surveillance has decreased across the country since the peak of the pandemic. But data that are collected show that, in recent weeks, there has been an increase in cases and hospitalizations. In Ontario, for instance, there were 167 new COVID hospital admissions in the week ending Oct. 14, along with 27 new deaths.
Part of the problem, according to Ms. Vohra-Miller, is the disconnect in the messaging. Health officials rarely speak about COVID now and it’s often dismissed as a minor health issue, leading some to tune out messages when new vaccines are offered, she said.
Health Canada has approved two mRNA vaccines that target the XBB.1.5 subvariant, which was dominant earlier this year. However, evidence shows the vaccine also provides strong protection against strains currently in circulation, such as EG.5. Novavax has also submitted its protein-based vaccine, which also targets XBB.1.5, to Health Canada for approval.
According to the federal department, 9.3 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna XBB.1.5 shots have arrived in Canada, and 8.7 million of those have been delivered to provinces and territories.
Several provinces and municipal health offices declined interview requests, saying it’s too early in the season to provide a perspective on how the rollout is going.
Alex Summers, medical officer of health for the Middlesex-London Health Unit in southwestern Ontario, said in a statement that there has been “steady demand” for the XBB.1.5 shot at a number of mass vaccination clinics run there. As of last week, the health unit had administered more than 3,000 doses at its vaccine clinics, with about 85 per cent of participants opting for a flu shot at the same time, he wrote.
Dawn Bowdish, Canada Research Chair in aging and immunity at McMaster University in Hamilton, said lack of outreach from overworked family doctors or underfunded public health units means that people who are overdue for an updated shot may not even realize it, inadvertently putting them at risk this season.
“There’s a whole group of people who aren’t vaccine hesitant. It’s just no one told them they should get an update,” Dr. Bowdish said.
She highlighted the exceptional rollout of the vaccine to people living in long-term care and other high-risk groups. But noted that in order to better protect the most vulnerable, it would be ideal to keep COVID levels in the community low.
For some, actually booking an appointment has proven difficult. Dr. Bowdish recounted the story of how she and her husband tried to help some elderly family members who live in the Niagara region book their XBB.1.5 shot. According to the region’s social media pages, appointments were available, but the online booking site showed no spots. Dr. Bowdish and her husband ended up driving to the public-health office to figure out how to get their vulnerable relatives their vaccinations.
But she doesn’t blame the health unit, knowing that they are doing the best with the limited resources the province has given: “Somebody’s got to keep those websites up-to-date, and somebody’s got to answer those phones and in the funding situation they’re in, that’s just not possible.”
There have been some reports in Canada of people getting an older COVID vaccine in recent weeks, despite wanting the updated XBB shot. In the U.S., earlier versions of the COVID vaccine have been deauthorized, meaning they can no longer be given. Health Canada spokesperson Nicholas Janveau said in an e-mail that it would be up to the manufacturer to withdraw its vaccine in the market in Canada.