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Ontario residents age 60 and older will be eligible to book a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose starting Thursday, the government announced, as wastewater surveillance suggested virus activity is now almost as high as the January peak.

Fourth doses are being offered at a recommended interval of five months after the initial booster shot, and appointments will be available to those who are eligible through the provincial vaccine portal, some public health units, Indigenous-led vaccination clinics and some pharmacies starting at 8 a.m.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis people and their non-Indigenous household members aged 18 and above will also be eligible at that time.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said residents who are eligible should receive a fourth dose in order to boost their immunity to COVID-19.

“That’s going to be really important to reduce the numbers of people that end up being in hospital because if you are fully immunized then you have better protection,” she said after an unrelated announcement Wednesday.

“If you do contract COVID, it’s far less likely that you’ll need to be in hospital. We’re going to have a wide public notice and public education campaign about that in the same way that we did for the third booster dose as well.”

Despite third doses being available for adults since December, uptake has stalled at around 60 per cent, though it is higher for older age groups. Public health experts have said the province should do more to encourage residents to get booster shots. Ontario’s chief medical officer of health has not given a public briefing since March 9.

Fourth doses are already available to long-term care and retirement home residents and immunocompromised people in Ontario.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization this week recommended provinces prioritize people aged 80 and older and long-term care residents, and strongly recommended fourth doses for people between ages 70 and 79.

The broader fourth-dose rollout comes as wastewater data released by Ontario’s science advisers on COVID-19 suggests infections in the province are almost as high as in early January, when Omicron was at its peak.

Ontario reported 3,444 new cases Wednesday, but due to limits on who can access PCR testing, the true level is likely much higher. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore has said the actual daily number of cases is about 10 times the official report.

The number of people in Ontario hospitals with COVID-19 stood at 1,074 on Wednesday, up nearly 40 per cent compared to the same time a week earlier.

Premier Doug Ford has called the rise in infections and hospitalizations “a little spike” and denied Wednesday that he is “downplaying” the situation.

“We’ve seen the ICU actually stabilize – 160 People are in ICU and (from) what I understand they’ve been there for a little while,” Mr. Ford said.

Ontario reported 168 people in intensive care Wednesday due to COVID-19, with similar levels for the past week.

“I’m very, very confident as we see the uptick a little bit, that we knew that was coming, and Dr. Moore mentioned it and I’ve mentioned it publicly - we can handle this. We have the resources, we have the skill set, and we’ll get through it,” Mr. Ford said.

Mr. Ford also defended Dr. Moore’s lack of public communication during the sixth wave of the pandemic.

“Dr. Moore is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. He never rests. He works around the clock for the people of Ontario,” the premier said. “I’m his biggest fan.”

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