MONTREAL – As Quebec prepares to launch a province-wide COVID-19 vaccination campaign ahead of a possible fall wave, it’s unclear whether it will be enough to prompt a pandemic-weary public to roll up their sleeves for another reinforcement.
As of Wednesday, only 56 percent of Quebecers over the age of five had received a third dose of the vaccine, a number that has barely budged in months. Government officials have said the low uptake of the booster is due to the fact that millions of Quebeckers have contracted the new coronavirus and consider themselves adequately protected.
Meanwhile, health experts say pandemic fatigue and government communication have also played a role.
Dr. Don Vinh, an infectious disease specialist at the McGill University Health Center, points a finger at messages from the provincial government. Vinh says that the government should have promoted reinforcements more strongly in the last six to eight months instead of making a big effort at a time when the current wave of COVID-19 is subsiding.
If there had been a “consistent and clear” notice about the reinforcements, “more people would have been protected and all the consequences of the infection of recent months would have been avoided,” he said in an interview.
Jason Harley, an associate professor in the department of surgery at McGill University, believes many people have shifted to a “post-COVID mindset” that leads them to stop listening to public health advice. After two years of the pandemic, concern has turned to overconfidence.
“A lot of this has to do with pandemic exhaustion,” they said in an interview.
“It’s been over two years, and there was an enormous amount of anxiety that many people lived with from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour, so it’s normal and thoughtful that people looked to find ways to feel better.” said Harley, who also has a doctorate in educational psychology.
The challenge, Harley said, is convincing people to continue to protect themselves and listen to the guidelines, which requires connecting with people through clear and easy-to-follow public health messages.
That’s something that isn’t always easy when people are on “different time frames” because they’ve become eligible for boosters at different stages of the pandemic, they said. There are also differences between how provinces communicate about COVID-19 and even who is eligible for reinforcements.
Health Minister Christian Dubé acknowledged on Tuesday that booster rates had “stagnated” but attributed the phenomenon largely to the fact that so many people have been infected with COVID-19 in recent months. He told a news conference that 88 percent of the most vulnerable age cohort, those over 60, have received their third dose.
However, he said all adults should get a booster if it’s been five months or more since their last injection, or three months since they were infected with the new coronavirus. Dubé said appointments for vaccines will open for people over 60 next week and for all people over 18 on August 29. Quebec began offering the fifth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to residents of long-term care homes and private nursing homes on Monday.
Caroline Quach-Thanh, a microbiologist and chairwoman of the Quebec immunization committee, told the same news conference that there is a chance new vaccines in development could provide longer-lasting immunity. Current offerings provide good protection, “but in terms of durability, the long-term answer isn’t there,” she said.
Vinh suggested that Quebecers should get used to the idea of getting regular COVID-19 vaccinations, at least for now. Vaccines still protect very well against serious illness and death, she said, but it’s now clear that people will need regular boosters to maintain immunity.
While some people may be tired or say “we’re vaccinating too much,” people should think of vaccines like any other medicine, Vinh said.
“There are medications that you give every day or two or three times a day, and do you know why?
“Because the effect of that drug wears off and it’s time for the next dose.”
Another microbiologist praised the Quebec government’s booster campaign, and especially the decision to drop the terms “fourth” or “fifth” vaccine dose in favor of calculating the amount of time since the last injection.
Anne Gatinol thinks people will get reinforcements but they need a push.
“I’ve found that if people aren’t encouraged to do it, they just don’t do it,” the McGill professor of experimental medicine said in an interview.
Both she and Vinh agree that the government is doing the right thing by offering boosters to everyone over the age of 18, even though some jurisdictions, like the United States, limit them to older and vulnerable people.
Health experts note that young people can still get seriously ill from COVID-19, even if they are less likely to die from it, and say that vaccines can help protect both people and the health system.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 18, 2022.
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