TORONTO — Ontario residents aged 50 and older can soon book COVID-19 booster shots and more people will become eligible in January, the province announced Thursday, amid rising virus cases and the new Omicron variant.
Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's chief medical officer of health, encouraged those eligible to book booster appoints as soon as possible. Vaccination is the best defence against the recent surge in cases and the Omicron variant, he said.
"The most important thing you can do right now, if you haven't already, is step forward and get your COVID-19 shot: your first, second or third dose if you're eligible," Moore said.
People 50 and up can make booster appointments starting Dec. 13 at 8 a.m., the province said. Next month, more people will become eligible based on age and COVID-19 risk, with boosters offered between six and eight months from a person’s second dose.
Boosters are currently on offer to people aged 70 and older, Indigenous adults, transplant patients, health-care workers and people who are immune suppressed.
Moore said the province has "ample supply" of vaccine but wants to limit booster eligibility to people who are most vulnerable to a COVID-19 infection, then moving to third doses for people and in their 50s and 60s before opening it up to everyone.
He said eligibility is expanding in a staged manner so clinics that are also administering flu shots and first COVID-19 shots to children aged five to 11 aren't overwhelmed, but the schedule may move faster depending on how many people step up for boosters.
"If we don't see the capacity being used that we've built to best protect those ... high-priority groups, we will then potentially open it up sooner to other age groups," he said.
Ontario's announcement came as Alberta residents aged 60 and older became eligible to book third COVID-19 shots. Third doses are to people 65 and older in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, Yukon residents can get boosters shots at 50 and anyone over 18 in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut can get a third dose.
The pace of the province's booster plan drew concern from some in the medical community and political opposition, however.
Doris Grinspun, head of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, said waiting to preserve clinic capacity is a "terrible reason" to hold off on offering third doses because people will spend more time indoors in winter, making it easier for Omicron and other variants to spread.
"We should be moving with boosters for everybody, the sooner the better," she said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the booster rollout “lackadaisical” without enough communication from the government encouraging eligible people to participate.
There was also further news on Thursday of the Omicron variant being detected elsewhere in Ontario, days after the first four cases were detected in Ottawa and others were found in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec.
Two Toronto-area health units confirmed cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant on Thursday, the fifth and sixth known cases in the province.
The Durham Region Health Department said the person who tested positive is a close contact of a traveller who recently returned from a southern African country that Canada has deemed high-risk for the variant.
The local health department said other COVID-19 cases are under investigation because of recent travel history, but did not say how many are being investigated. Toronto Public Health declared an outbreak at a provincially run jail Thursday because the person who tested positive had a suspected Omicron case under investigation by Durham.
Halton Public Health, meanwhile, said one person was confirmed to have the variant and two others had probable cases. It said one of the people with a suspected Omicron case had recently travelled to Nigeria and is a close contact of the other two.
The World Health Organization has named Omicron a variant of concern, and Canada is one of several countries to have implemented targeted travel measures to contain it, though not much is yet known about its characteristics, including whether it reduces vaccine effectiveness.
Moore said Thursday that while it's unclear if boosters will help against Omicron, "we don't expect an absolute loss of immunity."
"I do hope and wish that it gives us protection against Omicron but I don’t have the science to say that yet," he said.
But if vaccines are effective against Omicron, Moore said the province would ideally offer boosters to people who haven't yet had third doses within two months, so more people can be better protected if Omicron is indeed more transmissible and becomes the dominant virus strain.
Thursday's announcement on booster doses also came with new vaccination guidance for people receiving dialysis, who will become eligible for third COVID-19 vaccine doses if it’s been 56 days since their second shot.
The province now recommends that people receiving cell treatments following therapy or a transplant get vaccinated again with both shots because of lost immunity.
Also starting Thursday, limited doses of the single-shot Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine are now on offer to adults with allergies to mRNA shots, or to unvaccinated people who contact their local public health unit.
That vaccine was approved by Health Canada but hadn't been distributed in Ontario, though other provinces have already offered it to some people.
Moore said the province considers the Johnson and Johnson shot to be inferior to mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, but he said it's now being offered with informed consent because public health units indicated some people had a preference for it.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press