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Health officials hope new Omicron vaccine will improve uptake of COVID-19 boosters

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OTTAWA — The first doses of the most up-to-date vaccine for COVID-19 will start arriving in Canada next week after Health Canada gave the green light to the Pfizer-BioNTech booster shot on Friday.

Dr. Supriya Sharma, the chief medical adviser, said the combination vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech that targets both the original coronavirus and the BA.4 and BA.5 strains of Omicron can now be offered to Canadians who at least 12 years old.

“If you are six months post any vaccine and COVID illness, then you should get your bivalent vaccine, you should get that booster,” Sharma said.

“And that’ll help you in terms of serious illness protection, but it will also give you some protection, especially in the short term against potentially getting infected with COVID.”

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This shot was authorized through a process similar to the one used for annual flu shots, which meant the approval could come much quicker. Sharma said the vaccine has already been given to nearly five million Americans and no safety signals have arisen.

Canadians can get the shot as early as three months after their most recent booster, but Sharma said she wouldn’t recommend doing it sooner than that. She said doses too close together can limit the effectiveness of the extra dose.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said 2.8 million doses of the new Pfizer booster will be shipped to Canada next week, and 11 million by the end of the year. Provincial governments will announce separately who will become eligible to get this shot and when.

Given the slowing uptake of boosters in Canada, 11 million doses will likely be more than enough to give a booster to those who want one.

While 81 per cent of all Canadians have the first two doses of a vaccine, only 49 per cent followed advice to get a third dose, and 13 per cent followed up with the recommendation to get a fourth dose.

Combination vaccines, referred to as bivalent by vaccine makers, target more than one strain of the virus. Pfizer’s BA.4 and BA.5 boosters is the second bivalent authorized in Canada.

A Moderna booster approved five weeks ago targets the original virus and the first strain of the Omicron variant.

Sharma said there isn’t a lot of difference between the results of being boosted with one or the other, even though BA.4 and BA.5 are the dominant strains in circulation now.

Health Canada data show in mid September, 88 per cent of COVID-19 cases that were sequenced to identify the strain proved to be BA.5 and nine per cent were BA.4.

The original vaccines authorized almost a year ago now were very good at preventing infection but Omicron threw a big wrench into that. While the vaccines remained excellent at preventing serious illness and hospitalization, they stopped being very good at preventing people from getting infected.

Sharma said it’s not really clear yet how infection rates will be affected as the new booster rolls out because there are so many different strains circulating.

There are at least four different versions of both the BA.4 and BA.5 strain alone.

“I think it’s really an interesting kind of place in the pandemic, where we haven’t been before there’s a bit of a variant soup out there,” said Sharma.

“There is some evidence that at least some of the top candidates for the ones that might emerge in the next wave would be covered by these vaccines. But I think it’s, you know, we’re still learning as we go with the pandemic.”

Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief public health officer, said while the updated combination Omicron vaccines are good, people who recently got a booster using one of the original vaccines need not worry that they can’t get an Omicron booster for another three to six months.

“Evidence continues to show that original mRNA vaccines provide good protection against serious illness and hospitalization,” he said.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said case numbers are starting to tick up again but there are signs the end of the pandemic is in sight.

Canadians can help bring that end closer by continuing to do what they can to slow the spread, including getting booster shots.

Njoo acknowledged there has been vaccine fatigue over the past two years, but said he believes people will start to think about updating their COVID-19 vaccines in a similar way to the annual flu shot.

“We certainly anticipate that we will increase and improve uptake,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2022.

 

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

 

 

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Children’s hospital in Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries

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A children’s hospital in the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries and appointments starting Monday.

Health officials say it’s due to a high level of respiratory illness.

It is unclear how many surgeries and appointments at Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre in St. John‘s will be affected.

Residents who are not experiencing a medical emergency are being asked to avoid visiting an emergency department.

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Older adults amongst the most susceptible to RSV

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TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — The risk of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV, typically flies under the radar when it comes to older adults.

With 10 times the amount of older adults being hospitalized for RSV than in previous years, understanding the risk is important for those who are more susceptible.

“RSV in older adults starts out with the same symptoms as younger adults. With common cold-like symptoms- nasal congestion, sniffles, low-grade temperature, sore throat, dry cough, tiredness. These symptoms will last for a few days,” Mary Derby, Nurse Manager at Pima County Health Department explained.

“However, an older adult or an adult with chronic medical conditions such as heart and lung disease- they can experience more serious symptoms, such as getting a high fever, dehydration, and real difficulty breathing.”

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Derby says if these symptoms lead to extreme chest pain, loss of color in the face, or struggle to breathe- seek medical attention immediately.

It is also important for those assisting an older adult to be aware of the risk imposed on those more susceptible.

“If you’re caring for older adults, please wash your hands frequently. Watch for your own symptoms and stay away if you’re experiencing symptoms. Consider wearing a mask to protect that older adult, because these older adults do need that protection… Take it seriously,” Derby emphasized.

Upward 6,000 to 10,000 older adults die each year from RSV.

As we make our way through the holidays, be sure to stay up to date with COVID-19 and Influenza vaccines, stay home if you are not feeling well, wash your hands often and for those at higher risk, wear a fitted mask around others.

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Breanna Isbell is a reporter for KGUN 9. She joined the KGUN 9 team in July of 2022 after receiving her bachelor’s degree in sports journalism from Arizona State University in May. Share your story ideas with Breanna by emailing breanna.isbell@kgun9.com or by connecting on Facebook, or Twitter.

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AIDS day walk in North Battleford aims to `banish that stigma’

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 By Julia Peterson

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

On World AIDS Day, advocates in the Battlefords gathered to raise awareness about how the virus affects people in their community, and how people can get help and treatment, if they need it.

“HIV is completely preventable in today’s society, with all the advances in medication,” said Battle River Treaty 6 Health Centre’s HIV project coordinator, Cymric Leask. “But due to a lot of intersecting factors, especially due to COVID  in the past couple of years, our HIV numbers have skyrocketed.”

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In 2021, more than 200 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in the province, even while testing, treatment and outreach were reduced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saskatchewan has the highest rate of new HIV infections in Canada, and has had the highest annual rate in the country for more than a decade.

The proportion of new HIV cases in rural areas is rising, too.

“Here up north, there are such large barriers to access to care,” said Leask. “We do have some great resources here in North Battleford  but it’s still very hard to access the proper care for HIV.”

For example, getting started on HIV medication requires a visit with a communicable disease doctor, but there is no communicable disease doctor based in the Battlefords. Instead, that doctor visits the community only once every four months.

Another barrier Leask has found is that many people still have an outdated  understanding of what HIV is, who is at risk and how treatment works.

“Especially here in rural areas, it’s stigmatized as something that only affects gay or bisexual men, men who have sex with men,” Leask said.

Today in Saskatchewan, men and women are diagnosed with HIV at almost equal rates, and two thirds of new cases are passed through injection drug use.

Treatments are much easier to manage than they used to be; some only involve taking one pill a day.

But the enduring stigma around HIV makes it harder for people to find community and support.

“People don’t talk about it,” said Jackie Kennedy, executive director of the Battlefords Indian and Metis Friendship Centre. “I think they’re afraid to. A lot of people don’t disclose that information (about their HIV status) because they are afraid to be judged.”

As more people continue to be diagnosed with HIV in Saskatchewan every year, groups and organizations in the Battlefords are working hard to make it easier for people to get testing, treatment, information and harm reduction supplies.

“We want to banish that stigma of how it used to be,” said Leask. “It’s not like that anymore.”

  Julia Peterson is a  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE STARPHOENIX

The LJI program is federally funded.

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