Late last week, the World Health Organization declared the end of COVID-19 as a global health emergency.
Following that announcement, Minister of Health Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry commented on the “important milestone” and spoke of the many challenges society has weathered “together” during the past three years.
“We have been transitioning out of the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic for some time now, and have been integrating COVID-19 surveillance, monitoring, processes, and supports into our regular health system operations,” said Henry.
However, she noted: “COVID-19 is still with us, and will be with us for the foreseeable future, so we need to continue to monitor and to take measures we know protect ourselves and others.”
The doctor also took time to answer a few questions about the virus for local seniors.
1. With the fifth booster shot out, should all or most seniors have already received an invitation to get that shot. And if not, what should they do?
• B.C.’s COVID-19 spring booster program started on April 3, 2023. Eligible individuals will receive an invitation through the Get Vaccinated system once they have reached the 6-month interval since their last dose of vaccine. That means that most people will have received their invitation by the end of May.
• As of April 26, a total of 149,596 booster doses have been given across all high-risk groups since the beginning of the 2023 spring booster campaign. Of these, over 90 per cent have been delivered by pharmacies.
• We’re seeing an average of 8,000-10,000 bookings made per day, with 85 to 90 per cent of these bookings made by individuals aged 60 years and older, which is consistent with the criteria for the spring booster campaign.
• Health authorities started administering spring booster doses in long-term care and assisted living facilities on April 11.
• More information about vaccination eligibility is available at: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/covid-19/vaccine/booster
• Members of the public can phone the call centre at 1-833-838-2323 if they have questions booking a COVID-19 vaccine.
2. Is the sixth booster going to be coming soon, or is it being reducing to once a year – like the flu shot?
• In B.C., our focus remains on people getting at least one dose of a bivalent booster shot – regardless of what doses they have received in the past.
• The defences we have built through immunization and the combination of vaccine immunity and infection induced immunity means that we have strong defences as a community.
• We have very good evidence that our vaccines are still providing strong protection – and cross-protection for Omicron subvariants – from serious illness, hospitalization and death, especially if you’ve had the bivalent booster with the omicron antigen.
• As stated in the March 3 NACI statement, there continue to be many uncertainties around the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic. Which means we still do not know if another dose of vaccine will be needed next fall or if it will be a longer period before immunity decreases and another dose is needed. We will continue to monitor and will provide information as we see how things evolve.
•Given that it is possible that additional booster doses may be recommended by NACI for broader population groups in the fall of 2023 around the same time as influenza vaccines are offered.
3. Is COVID still as dangerous and potentially lethal to seniors as when the pandemic first started? Can you explain?
• People are still getting sick with COVID-19, and those who are most at risk continue to be older people, people with immunocompromising conditions and people who have not yet been vaccinated.
• However, through combinations of COVID-19 infection and vaccination, we have achieved a very high level of population immunity and the number of people at risk for serious outcomes from COVID-19 has dropped significantly.
• At this stage, even amongst the frailest elderly populations in long-term care facilities, most vaccinated residents with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms.
• We now have good protection against COVID-19 on a population basis and we are in a much better position than we were earlier in the pandemic.
4. What safeguards should seniors be following, if any, and why? ie. Are masks still encouraged, are they helpful at this point? Is isolation really necessary any longer? etc.
• Even though the respiratory season has ended and we are taking steps to return to pre-pandemic operations in long-term care, assisted living, and health-care facilities, we continue to encourage everyone, including seniors, to get the spring booster and take appropriate measures to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses:
– Stay at home if you feel unwell and stay away from people at higher risk of serious illness if you have symptoms.
– Wear a mask if you have respiratory symptoms, or are recovering from a respiratory illness, and you are around others, especially people at higher risk of serious illness.
– Practise good respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene.
• If you are someone at higher risk consider wearing a well-fitted medical mask when in indoor crowded spaces where ventilation is poor.
• People with symptoms of COVID-19 symptoms should stay home as much as possible to reduce any potential spread of illness. Stay home until your symptoms have improved, your fever is gone, and you are able to participate in your usual activities. Visit http://www.bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19/self-isolation for more information.
5. What’s happening in care homes? Can we go visit friends? Are tests still required, if we go?
• Effective Apr. 6, 2023, visitor restrictions in long-term care, assisted living, and health-care facilities were lifted.
– This includes the requirement for proof of vaccination to enter long-term care, assisted living, and health-care facilities, which is no longer in effect.
– Rapid antigen testing in long-term care is no longer required.
– Universal mask-wearing by all staff and visitors in health-care facilities is no longer mandatory.
• People should check with their local facility about their policies before they visit.
•People who are sick or have symptoms of illness should not visit long-term care and seniors’ assisted living sites; if you can, postpone visits to loved ones in LTC until you are feeling better.
• Visitors are expected to follow the precautions at each facility, including:
– Hand hygiene
– Respiratory etiquette like coughing into your elbow, throwing away used tissues into a waste bin, and washing your hands or using a sanitized immediately after
– Respecting personal space
– Mask wearing, when appropriate or as requested by a health-care professional
6. Are COVID tests still available free of charge from pharmacies, and if so, for how long – indefinitely?
• Currently, rapid antigen testing kits are free for everyone in B.C. People can visit their local pharmacy and ask for their testing kit.
• There have been no planned changes to the province’s strategy of rapid test distribution, nor is there a plan to end free rapid test distribution in the near term.
• More information about rapid antigen testing kits can be found here: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/covid-19/info/testing
7. Is there anything else, as a senior, that I should be aware of now about COVID-19?
• COVID-19 is still with us, and is likely to be around for many years. Thanks to the high level of immunity primarily from vaccination and combinations of boosters and infection the virus is no longer causing severe disease in most people. This means we can safely get back to many of the important things in our lives like gathering with family and friends. We know seniors have borne the brunt of many of the challenges of this pandemic and it is important to be able to safely get back to activities and connections in our lives. As we have learned, some settings are less risky than others. If you are at higher risk enjoying other people’s company outside may be better; especially if someone has been sick or in contact with someone who is ill. As well we can add additional protection by wearing a mask when we have symptoms ourselves and need to go out or if we are in crowded indoor settings.
• People who have not yet been vaccinated are still at a higher risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases and of having more severe illness with COVID-19.
• We strongly encourage everyone to receive their primary series of vaccinations as soon as possible and to consider receiving a bivalent booster if they have not already done so.
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