Globe editorial: Want to help Canada’s overwhelmed health care system? Get your COVID-19 booster shot

A person draws out Moderna vaccine during a drive through COVID-19 vaccine clinic at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ont., on Jan. 2.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

What are the essential things we know about COVID-19, its impact on our hospitals, and how vaccines can help prevent a case of the former from turning into a visit to the latter?

We know that the virus comes in waves and that another is likely this fall. We know that it is still killing about 200 Canadians every week.

We know that Canada’s hospitals are already overstretched, thanks in part to the fact that on any given day across the country this month, there were more than 4,000 people with COVID occupying much-needed beds.

We know that vaccines are highly effective at preventing hospitalization. We know that some of the new bivalent boosters that target the Omicron variant are now available in Canada. And we know that everyone over 18 should get a booster this fall to remain fully protected – a recommendation made by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) on Sept. 1.

Knowing these things, a reasonable person would expect Ottawa and the provinces to be bombarding us with messages urging us to keep our vaccination status up to date, so as to lower our odds of COVID-19 sending us to the doctor, or the hospital.

After all, the health care system is overstretched as it is. Provinces are trying to help hospitals get over the damage from COVID, and to free up staff and beds for everyone from cancer patients to those whose elective surgeries have been postponed. The provinces also want to give beleaguered nurses and doctors a chance to catch their breath. Right?

If only. At the moment, a population struggling with pandemic fatigue is being met by government booster campaigns that range from underwhelming to non-existent.

In Ontario, the fact that the new bivalent booster will be available to everyone over the age of 18 on Monday, and that people can book appointments online, is the extent of the province’s messaging on the matter.

The same goes for Quebec, where the bivalent doses have been available for people over age 30 since Sept. 8, and there are signs that (low) public interest has already peaked, at about 19,000 shots a day.

This is not good. Based on the NACI recommendation that people get a booster three to six months after their last shot (depending on their vulnerability), it won’t be long before millions and millions of Canadians are walking around with less-than-optimal protection. In Quebec, for example, the percentage of people whose vaccination status is fully up to date has fallen to 21.4 per cent, according to La Presse.

It’s a big comedown for a country that was a world leader at delivering the first two doses of vaccine. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, 90.6 per cent of adults have had two shots; for people over 65, the figure is 97 per cent.

When the first booster campaigns launched late last year during the original Omicron surge, provinces set ambitious goals. Ontario alone wanted to boost as many as 350,000 people per day. While it didn’t get there, it got close at times, and the shots helped diminish the flood of hospitalizations.

Canada’s high vaccination rate is one of the reasons our COVID-19 death rate is among the lowest in the developed world, and three times lower than in the United States.

But that’s ancient history. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, just 349,456 people aged 12 and older received a second booster over the past four weeks. That’s across the entire country, not just one province.

Canada needs to rediscover the drive that made its earlier vaccine campaigns so successful, especially among the most vulnerable – namely, older Canadians.

British Columbia took a stab at it when it announced it intends to deliver 280,000 booster shots per week this fall. Every other province needs to be at least as ambitious.

There are enough boosters to go around. Ottawa said Moderna is shipping 10.5 million doses of its bivalent vaccine to Canada just this month, and Moderna and Pfizer are close to submitting even newer formulations for approval from Health Canada. Canada also has plenty of first-generation shots for the nearly one in 10 adults who never got the original two-shot series.

Let’s get back to the time when Canada led the world. Every Canadian who gets vaccinated or boosted this fall reduces the number of people likely to end up in our crowded hospitals. It’s not complicated.

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