Only about 14 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers have received the new COVID-19 vaccine designed to target the Omicron XBB.1.5 subvariant, figures from the Department of Health show.

Meanwhile, more than a third of those aged 65 and older, who are considered at higher risk, have gotten the new shot, according to department spokesperson Sean Hatchard.

Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech’s XBB.1.5 vaccines have been available to New Brunswickers aged six months or older since October, as long as it’s been at least six months since their last dose or COVID infection.

Last week, Health Canada also approved the updated Novavax vaccine, Nuvaxovid XBB.1.5, for people 12 and older. Unlike the other two vaccines, Nuvaxovid is protein-based and does not use mRNA technology.

Hatchard could not say when Nuvaxovid doses will be available in New Brunswick or what guidance the province has to offer about this particular vaccine. Public Health is reviewing Health Canada’s approval, he said, and will provide an update “in the near future.”

A total of 114,432 COVID-19 vaccines were administered between Oct. 4 and Dec. 2, according to this week’s Respiratory Watch report.

As of Dec. 12, only 14.1 per cent of the total eligible population has received an XBB.1.5 vaccination. Among those aged 65 and older, Hatchard said the vaccination rate is 37.3 per cent.

‘Failure of public health messaging’

Asked how the current vaccination rates compare to the same launch stage of previous versions of COVID-19 vaccines, Hatchard said he couldn’t say, as the eligibility criteria has changed.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, describes XBB.1.5 vaccine uptake nationally as “very low.”

He blames in part “a failure of public health messaging to say, ‘This isn’t the booster.’

“This isn’t ‘more of the same.’ The fact that you may have had a few shots in the last three years is not relevant,” he said.

“You need this because it’s effective against what’s circulating now, and that’s very really different than what we had two years ago.”

Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said the two COVID strains now dominant in New Brunswick, HV.1 and HK.3, are related to the variant XBB, which is what the latest vaccines are designed to protect against, so he expects they will continue to be effective. (Katarina Kuruc)

There’s also “a sense that vaccination doesn’t much matter,” according to Furness. “A sense that anything we do doesn’t much matter anymore — ‘I’m going to get infected.’

“So it’s a little bit, in some ways, giving up and in other ways denying that we’re actually facing a really significant problem,” he said.

“So I’d like to see us chip away at that denial and chip away at that, I guess, resignation.”

Public Health responds

Hatchard contends that New Brunswick Public Health continues to remind New Brunswickers that COVID-19 “remains a significant health risk to many individuals, especially those who are immunocompromised or who fall into at-risk groups.”

It also “consistently highlights the importance of New Brunswickers staying up to date on all of their respiratory illness vaccinations,” he said, and “continues to emphasize that the Moderna- and Pfizer-manufactured COVID-19 vaccines are updated versions that specifically target the Omicron XBB.1.5 strain.”

While COVID-19 vaccines may not always prevent individuals from contracting the virus, we know from studies on previous COVID-19 vaccines that vaccination can provide protection against severe outcomes, such as hospitalization and death.– Sean Hatchard, Department of Health spokesperson

In addition, Public Health has a webpage that explains the benefits of the updated XBB.1.5 vaccine, Hatchard said.

No data on this vaccine’s effectiveness against infection or severe disease is currently available, according to Hatchard. Monitoring and research continues.

“While COVID-19 vaccines may not always prevent individuals from contracting the virus, we know from studies on previous COVID-19 vaccines that vaccination can provide protection against severe outcomes, such as hospitalization and death,” he added.

Infections after vaccines explained

New Brunswickers who are falling ill with COVID-19 shortly after they receive the new XBB.1.5 vaccine were likely infected before they got the shot or before it had a chance to take full protective effect, according to Hatchard.

It can take up to 14 days for the vaccine to provide “maximum protection,” he said.

The average incubation period for the virus is five days, but symptoms may begin within two to 14 days after an exposure.

The vaccines themselves do not cause infection, stressed Hatchard. “It is important to remember that COVID-19 vaccines are not a live virus.”

COVID-19 vaccine
The Department of Health says there are ample COVID-19 vaccine doses and appointments available for New Brunswickers to roll up their sleeves and get the updated shot. (CBC)

Some people may experience common side effects in the days following COVID-19 vaccination, such as pain, redness or swelling where the needle was given, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, chills or fever, but these are generally mild and temporary, he said.

For the people who do get sick after vaccination, the shot was not a waste, said Hatchard. It will still provide protection against future reinfection and reduce the risk of severe outcomes should reinfection occur, he said.

Asked whether people who get sick after vaccination might qualify for another vaccine before the usual six-month interval between shots or known infections, Hatchard said primary health-care providers, Public Health nurses, pharmacists and other immunizers can provide patients with guidance on the appropriate intervals between doses, “as they may vary based on individual situations.”

For anyone who gets infected before they get an XBB.1.5 shot, vaccination is still important, said Hatchard. “The combination of having been infected and also being vaccinated creates an extra layer of protection.”

Appointments for COVID-19 and flu vaccines are available at participating pharmacies across the province in the online scheduler, as well as at pharmacies who offer appointments, but not through the online scheduler.

For people who are between 12 and 29 years old and have never received a COVID-19 vaccine, Public Health recommends the Pfizer Comirnaty XBB.1.5 vaccine. It has a lowered risk of myocarditis or pericarditis, an inflammation of the heart or lining on the outside of the heart.

Otherwise, people aged five and older should receive either one dose of Moderna or one dose of Pfizer, regardless of their COVID vaccination history.

For children aged six months to under five years old who have never received a COVID-19 vaccine, Public Health recommends they get either two doses of Moderna or three doses of Pfizer. If they’ve received one or more COVID-19 vaccines, they should get either one dose of the updated Moderna vaccine, or one or two doses of the updated Pfizer vaccine, depending on the number of prior doses.

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