‘People are still dying’: Some Nova Scotians seek expanded COVID-19 booster eligibility

‘People are still dying’: Some Nova Scotians seek expanded COVID-19 booster eligibility

Second booster shot only available to long-term care residents and people 70 or older

When Doug McDade is spending time inside with his five-year-old granddaughter, she sometimes asks why her grandparents are wearing a mask.

The Halifax man is in his late 60s and is worried about contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to loved ones. He and his wife tell their grandchild they have a bad cold.

McDade, who has underlying health conditions, said not seeing his granddaughter is not an option.

“We just can’t bear to not have the contact,” he said.

In Nova Scotia, second boosters are only available to people 70 and older, residents of long-term care homes, members of Indigenous communities who are 55 and over, and immunocompromised individuals five years old and over. 

Esther vanGorder wants eligbility for the fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccines expanded to people under 70. (Emily Jewer/MJ Photographics)

McDade has received three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, with the most recent coming last December. He’d like to see the province expand second booster eligibility to people in their 60s.

“I would expect that if more people got the second booster shot, this would help reduce COVID over the next several months, reduce the severity of cases in those who catch it, and therefore may help reduce the transmission of the disease to those over 70 and it would generally save lives,” said McDade.

How Nova Scotia determines vaccine eligibility

Nova Scotia relies on guidelines issued by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) for vaccine eligibility.

It is one of four provinces that have not expanded eligibility beyond NACI’s recommendations. The others are B.C., Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador.

In New Brunswick, people 50 and above can get a second booster, while in P.E.I., people 60 and older qualify.

Nova Scotia’s Health Minister Michelle Thompson said the province will expand booster eligibility — if NACI says to do so.

“If their recommendation and advice to us changes, then certainly we will plan accordingly,” she said.

Dr. Lisa Barrett says second booster doses against COVID-19 are most effective in people 70 and over. (CBC)

McDade can’t understand that logic.

“If you have most of the provinces and territories already disregarding the [NACI] guidelines, why [would NACI] bother changing it?” he said.

Risks of hospitalization and death from COVID-19

The province’s most recent weekly COVID-19 update said the risk of hospitalization from COVID-19 for people 70 and above was 11 times greater than in people under 50, while the risk of death was 112 higher.

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious diseases specialist and researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax, supports the province’s approach to restricting second boosters to people 70 and older.

“Those are the folks who have the biggest amount of waning immunity after they receive vaccines,” she said.

“And so because of the severity of their outcomes and the fact that we know their immunity goes down quicker than other folks, that combination means that they are the people who will benefit the most.”

For people who do not qualify for the second booster, she recommends they practise “sensible, good respiratory hygiene” such as wearing masks, getting tested for COVID-19 regularly and not socializing with sick people.

Dr. Lisa Barrett of Halifax recommends getting tested regularly for COVID-19. (Robert Short/CBC)

Esther vanGorder, 61, would also like to see booster eligibility expanded. The Halifax woman and her husband, who is in his 70s, contracted COVID-19 in March and had mild cases.

“I hate to think what it would have been without the vaccine,” she said.

VanGorder has had three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, while her husband has had four.

She said she’s heard from several fit and healthy people who were “knocked flat” by COVID-19.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard people say how sick they were … that they ended up being in bed for three or four days and had no energy,” she said.

She’s worried that a second bout of COVID-19 wouldn’t be like the first one.

‘People are still getting sick,’ says vanGorder

In the meantime, the vanGorders are limiting their social contacts, wearing masks and practising physical distancing.

She’d like the province to communicate more to citizens that the pandemic isn’t over.

“People are still getting sick, people are still dying,” said vanGorder.