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Toronto Public Health nurse Carla Hidalgo Fernandez inoculates Pablo Efrain Mejia, 73, with his third Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 3, 2022.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Ontario seniors living in nursing homes will be the first in Canada to receive public coverage for a new vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus, the province said Thursday as it unveiled plans for a fall immunization blitz that also features updated shots for COVID and the flu.

Until this year, there were no approved vaccines to mitigate the toll of RSV, a pathogen that is most dangerous to infants and the elderly. Health Canada approved the first RSV vaccine for people 60 and older last month.

“I think it’s smart that we’re prioritizing people living in long-term care settings,” said Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics at the Mount Sinai and University Health Network hospitals. “This would be a population that is not only highly vulnerable but probably would be less likely to be able to afford to pay for the vaccine itself.”

For now, Ontario is only planning to cover the RSV vaccine for people living in long-term care homes and some retirement homes for high-risk seniors, but the shot will be available in pharmacies across the country for those who have private drug insurance or are able to pay the $230 out-of-pocket cost, according to GSK, the company that makes the shot, called Arexvy.

RSV came to broad public attention last year as one of the viral illnesses that, along with influenza and COVID, caused a “tripledemic” that pummelled hospitals.

Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said officials tracking hospital use last year found that, on average, 180 seniors were in Ontario hospitals every day with RSV during the height of viral illness season in December and January.

“That was almost the same burden as influenza,” Dr. Moore said in an interview Thursday. “That really convinced me of the impact of this.”

On the COVID front, Dr. Moore said he expects 350,000 doses of a reformulated shot from Moderna to be distributed to high-risk patients and settings – such as nursing homes and hospitals – by the end of September. The jabs should be available to people at lower risk of serious COVID illness beginning in mid-October, Dr. Moore said.

The tweaked Moderna shot, which targets a member of the Omicron family called XBB.1.5., was approved by Health Canada on Tuesday; the regulator is expected to approve a revised Pfizer-BioNTech shot shortly.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommends that everyone who hasn’t had a COVID shot or infection in the last six months get a jab with the reformulated shot this fall.

Dr. Moore said Ontario’s goal is to offer people their COVID and flu shots at the same time.

The province has ordered 6.1 million doses of various types of influenza vaccines, including a high-dose version for seniors, as well as 5.7 million doses of COVID vaccines. Rapid antigen tests for COVID will still be available through public-health offices and, as of this month, health care providers such as doctors can order them to share with patients for free.

Dr. Moore said that although the provincial health system is girding itself for another tough respiratory virus season, there are reasons to believe this year won’t be as punishing as the last. This year’s flu vaccine, for instance, looks like it will provide good coverage, based on the experience of the southern hemisphere.

“We anticipate a good match this year for influenza and the two strains that we anticipate circulating, which is great,” Dr. Moore said.

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