People 65 years of age and older may receive another dose of updated vaccine to protect against severe illness from COVID-19, Canada's advisory body on immunizations said Friday.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) released guidance on offering an additional dose of COVID-19 vaccines in the spring for people at high risk of severe illness from the pandemic virus. 

The "discretionary" recommendation for another dose also applies to adults living in long-term care homes and similar settings for seniors.

Dawn Bowdish, a professor at McMaster University and Canada Research Chair in Aging and Immunity, has been following long-term care residents as part of her COVID-19 studies.  

"I'm really supportive of continual vaccination for the most frail, older adults," Bowdish said. 

Those six months of age and older who are moderately to severely immunocompromised by another condition or treatment, such as organ transplant recipients, may also be offered a spring dose.

The group said its recommendations continue to aim for goals announced last February "to minimize serious illness and death while minimizing societal disruption" from the COVID-19 pandemic and transition away from the crisis phase towards long-term management. 

In general, NACI recommends an interval of six months from the last COVID-19 vaccine dose. 

NACI's spring recommendations come as leading public health officials elsewhere said low vaccination rates against the latest versions of the virus that causes COVID-19 and influenza are putting pressure on healthcare systems this winter.

In the United States, several European countries, and other parts of the world, there have been reports of rising hospitalizations linked to respiratory infections in recent weeks. Death rates have also ticked up among older adults in some regions, but far below the COVID pandemic peak.

Vaccination rates against flu, COVID called incredibly low

Spain's government has reinstated mask-wearing requirements at healthcare facilities, as have some U.S. and Canadian hospital networks.

"Too many people are in need of serious medical care for flu, for COVID, when we can prevent it," said Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization's (WHO) interim director of epidemic and pandemic preparedness.

She cited "incredibly low" vaccination rates against flu and COVID in many countries this season, as the world tries to move past the pandemic and its restrictions.

Governments have struggled to communicate the risks still posed by COVID and the benefits of vaccination since a global public health emergency was declared over in May 2023, infectious disease experts and health officials said.

Only 19.4 per cent of U.S. adults have received this season's COVID vaccine based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention's National Immunization Survey, despite a recommendation that all adults get an updated shot to protect against serious illness.

That compares roughly with 17 per cent of adults who got the bivalent booster in the 2022-2023 season, based on actual vaccine data reported to the CDC by states.

In Canada, federal figures show 15 per cent of the population aged five and up had received an updated COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 3.

The group said national vaccination coverage last spring was about 11 per cent in people 65 and up.

Bowdish shares concerns of health officials elsewhere about low vaccine uptake. 

"I worry it'll be the same 12 to 15 per cent in the spring, and the next fall."

In Europe, the new COVID shots are recommended for high-risk groups only, such as seniors and the immunocompromised. Among these groups, the WHO says there should be 100 per cent coverage.

COVID rates are also rising in the southern hemisphere during their summer, the WHO said. It is not a seasonal virus.

Last month, 850,000 new COVID cases and 118,000 new hospitalizations were reported globally, a rise from November of 52 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively, according to WHO, which added that actual figures were likely higher.

The vaccines are still very effective at preventing serious illness, even if they do not block infection, experts said.

2024-01-12T20:48:36Z dg43tfdfdgfd