Breakenridge: With Omicron threatening, it's prudent to expand the booster shot age groups

Some experts are recommending the booster vaccination as extra protection against hospitalization due to the coronavirus.

Rob Breakenridge 3 minute read November 30, 2021

Some experts are recommending the booster vaccination as extra protection against hospitalization due to the coronavirus. ROBIN UTRECHT/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

As of this writing, there have been no confirmed cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant here in Alberta. By the time you read this, that may no longer be the case. Its arrival here is almost certainly inevitable.

The extent to which that should concern or alarm us is not yet clear. It is extremely unlikely that this is all some big false alarm, but there’s much we still need to learn about this variant’s transmissibility and whether or how much it erodes existing immunity.

Given these concerns, the calls for Alberta to expand booster doses are going to grow even louder. Even prior to this variant’s discovery, there was a strong case for Alberta to be more aggressive in its booster shot rollout. It’s even more difficult now to understand or defend the reluctance to go further.

Alberta doesn’t necessarily need to go as far as other jurisdictions just yet. Manitoba, for example, recently announced that all adults are eligible for a third vaccine dose, provided that six months have passed since their second dose (although that is presently the eligibility criteria for all First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in Alberta). But our eligibility is still too limited.

There are many Albertans now past the six-month interval since their second dose who are not yet eligible for a booster. As of Nov. 8, booster shots were made available to all Albertans aged 70 and up, but that eligibility has not been adjusted since then. On Monday, Premier Jason Kenney suggested that will change in the near future.

It’s understandable that health officials are trying to be both cautious and prudent in approaching the matter of booster shots. There is clear evidence of waning immunity with the vaccines, but there are differing schools of thought on how pronounced — and therefore how problematic — that is. For example, protection against severe outcomes and hospitalizations seems more durable than the protection against symptomatic infection.

It’s also true that Canada has some advantages in this regard. Our rollout of vaccines started later than other countries that have encountered the waning immunity problem. Also, our approach of longer intervals in between doses and allowing mixed vaccine doses likely conveyed added protection.

Canada as a country can certainly do more to help the cause of vaccine equity and boost the global vaccination rate. But in the meantime, we have doses here and we should make use of them.

Alberta has also been prioritizing the overall vaccination rate, which has been lagging behind the rest of the country. It is still important to increase that number as much as we can, but the demand for first and second doses has definitely tapered off (not including the demand for newly available pediatric doses).

If we have doses available for boosters — doses that might otherwise go to waste — let’s make them available to a wider section of the population. At the very least, we should drop the age of eligibility to 60, but going to 50 might make the most sense right now — again, so long as six months have passed since the second dose.

Kenney’s call for a swift federal response to the threat is hopefully indicative of a different approach from his government than the response to the emergence of the Delta variant. The premier was quite dismissive of the threat that Delta posed, only to see that variant become dominant here and fuel a challenging fourth wave.

Our vulnerability to Delta stemmed from an insufficient level of population immunity, specifically that too few Albertans had been fully vaccinated when Delta finally hit. We obviously don’t know at this point if the new Omicron variant will outcompete Delta or the extent of our vulnerability to it, but it’s hard to argue that an expansion of booster shots would leave us worse off.

Let’s be better prepared this time around.

“Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” airs weekdays 12:30-3 p.m. on 770 CHQR rob.breakenridge@corusent.com  Twitter: @RobBreakenridge

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