British Columbia is gearing up for a major COVID-19 booster shot campaign this fall with the expectation that new vaccines tailor-made to fight the Omicron variant will be available.

COVID-19 boosters will be available to people in B.C. aged 12 and over starting in September, said Dr. Penny Ballem, who is leading the province's COVID-19 immunization plan.

Invitations will start to go out Monday for those most vulnerable aged 65 and older, she said Friday.

The advantage of getting the second booster shot this fall is that new Pfizer and Moderna vaccines better adapted to fight Omicron variants are likely to be available, she said.

The new vaccines still require Health Canada approval, but the review process is underway, Ballem said.

"It's all about the fall," she said at a news conference. "We want you to wait to get your next booster in the fall. Fall is the best time to get your next shot. That's when the risk is highest."

Almost 94 per cent of B.C. residents have had their first vaccine, 91.2 per cent have had a second, but just 59.5 have had their first booster, she said.

Ballem said 1.3 million people in B.C. have yet to receive a third shot and they should get that immediately to ensure better protection from COVID-19.

People who feel they need their second booster now rather than the fall can contact health authorities and arrangements will be made to get them their shot, she said.

#BC to offer COVID-19 booster for 12-plus starting this fall, new vaccines expected. #BCPoli #Covid19

Ballem said officials also hope to get approval by the end of July to give children aged six months to four years their vaccinations, but that also still needs regulatory approval.

Acting provincial health officer Dr. Martin Lavoie said the fall booster campaign aims to offer the most protection to people from COVID-19.

"In the fall, in the winter particularly, this is when we know respiratory viruses, including COVID-19 are expected to circulate in much higher numbers," he said. "This is when many people get sick, and this is when the risk of getting infected increases."

He urged people who have not received their first booster dose to do so and encouraged everybody to continue practising safe habits, including wearing masks, washing hands, staying at safe distances and staying home if sick.

B.C. is following the most recent recommendation from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, which says people 65 and older and others at risk of illness should receive a fall booster, while those between 12 and 64 are encouraged to get the shot.

Lavoie said the latest wave of the Omicron variant BA.5 is increasing hospitalizations.

He said vaccine makers have learned a lot about adapting to variants and the developments are promising.

“What’s important to know now is that manufacturers have developed vaccines that will be better adapted to Omicron, which is great news,” said Lavoie.

“As the virus goes further away from the vaccine that we have now, we need to have a vaccine that is closely related to what circulates to be more effective," he said.

Up until now, B.C. has been offering second booster shots for people 70 years and older and Indigenous people 55 years and older.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control's most recent update reports 765 COVID-19 cases for the week of June 26 to July 2, up from 620 the previous week.

It also says there were 172 COVID-19 hospital admissions for the week of June 26 to July 2, while there were 209 admissions for the week prior.

The centre says there were 24 COVID-19-related deaths this past week compared to 33 deaths from June 19 to 25.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said 2.8 million people in B.C. have had their first booster but urged others to get their shot.

"Get your first booster today. Get it done today," said Dix.

B.C. has a high vaccine acceptance rate, but the numbers can always be improved, he said.

"As a community we've adapted and adapted and adapted and we're going to have to continue to adapt," said Dix.

— By Dirk Meissner in Victoria.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2022.

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