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Ottawa’s medical officer concerned about low covid vaccine uptake

Ottawa’s medical officer concerned about low covid vaccine uptake


Dr. Vera Etches is worried not enough people – especially seniors – are getting the latest covid vaccine as cases continue to rise.

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Nearly half of people over 80 in Ottawa have not received the latest COVID-19 vaccine, leaving them at risk for severe outcomes if they become infected, Ottawa’s medical officer of health is warning.

Dr. Vera Etches said she is concerned about low vaccination uptake of the COVID XBB booster among older adults, who are most vulnerable to hospitalization and death from the virus.

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Her warning comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise in Ottawa heading into the holiday season and wastewater levels have been increasing steadily since the summer. Hospitalizations are higher than they were last year at this time and people over 80 make up a significant proportion of those in hospital with COVID-19.

Over the past seven days, an average of 71 people a day have been hospitalized in Ottawa because of COVID-19.

At this time last year, that number was 49. In October of last year, when cases peaked in the fall, there were 65 people in hospital. Recent numbers have not reached the pandemic peak of 134 hospitalizations — in January 2022 — which followed the arrival of highly contagious Omicron.

In an interview Wednesday, Etches encouraged everyone, but especially the elderly, to get an updated COVID-19 vaccine and a seasonal flu vaccine.

Currently, 54 per cent of people over the age of 80 in Ottawa have received an updated COVID-19 vaccine. That compares to coverage rates around 90 per cent for previous COVID-19 vaccines. Overall, just 18 per cent of the population has received the new vaccine that targets the XBB.1.5 variant.

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During earlier COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, Ottawa had some of the highest rates of coverage in the province, but those numbers have dropped as the pandemic has progressed.

Among complications this year are that some retirement and long-term care homes have struggled to vaccinate elderly residents because of critical staffing shortages or outbreaks, said Etches. Ottawa Public Health assists some retirement homes with immunization.

Etches said it is important to counter the belief that COVID-19 is no longer a severe illness. It is more dangerous than flu, she said, with a higher mortality rate—and older adults are at the highest risk. People over the age of 80 have made up the majority of COVID-19 deaths in Ottawa since the pandemic began.

Ottawa Public Health reported four additional COVID-19 deaths over the past seven days.

COVID-19 has also been linked to serious post-infection complications, including a heightened risk of heart disease, strokes and long COVID. Vaccination can reduce risks.

Outbreaks in hospitals, retirement homes and long-term care homes also continue to be high in Ottawa. There are currently 13 ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals in the city and 21 outbreaks in retirement homes, with six outbreaks in long-term care homes.

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Amid the late-fall surge of COVID-19, though, there is good news. Deaths from COVID-19 will be lower this year than last year, said Etches. In 2021, 232 Ottawa residents died of COVID-19. That number jumped sharply to 403 in 2022. So far this year, there have been 158 COVID-19 deaths in the city.

Etches said the vaccination campaign has been complicated this year, in part, because the virus began circulating before the updated vaccine was available. Some people may have tried to get vaccinated and gave up, while others either have had or believe they have had a recent infection and don’t qualify for a booster vaccine.

She advised anyone who has not tested positive for COVID-19 to get the updated vaccine.

She also advised families with loved ones in retirement or long-term care homes to check on their vaccination status for COVID-19 as well as flu and RSV, if they qualify.

“There is plenty of supply of COVID-19 vaccine. At many pharmacies, it is possible to get a same-day or next-day appointment.”

Despite the end of special provincial pandemic funding, Ottawa Public Health is not closing down its COVID-19 services, Etches said. It will do so through its base budget.

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“We are continuing to offer COVID-19 vaccines.”

So far, two updated mRNA COVID vaccines, from Pfizer and Moderna, have been available in Ontario this fall. But a third vaccine targeting the XBB variant of COVID-19, from Novavax, has been approved by Health Canada and could soon be available in Ontario. Unlike Pfizer and Moderna, it is protein-based.

Silvia Taylor, who is executive vice president, chief corporate affairs and advocacy officer for Novavax, said the vaccine could help boost uptake of vaccines this year by appealing to people who want another option than mRNA vaccines.

“Vaccination rates have been low, but as people see rates of illness going up going into the holidays, it will be great timing to have a second push,” said Taylor.

There has been no word on when or if the vaccine will be available in Ontario.

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