1 million British Columbians sitting on invites for COVID-19 vaccine booster

More than a million British Columbians are sitting on invitations to get a booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine, health officials revealed Tuesday.

That's despite widespread transmission in recent months, which led to increases in hospitalizations and deaths, and left many businesses struggling with coronavirus-related staffing issues.

Speaking at their first live COVID-19 briefing in weeks, Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry urged the public to get vaccinated as soon as they're eligible.

"Haven't got your first dose? Get your first dose," Dix said. "If you haven't got your second dose, get your second dose. If you haven't got your third dose, get your third dose."

While more than 4.35 million people across the province have received two doses of vaccine, only 2.72 million have received a third so far, according to the latest data available on the B.C. Centre for Disease Control website.

Meanwhile, the province has administered just over 78,000 second boosters, or fourth doses, to seniors in long-term care and individuals considered clinically extremely vulnerable.

Many more seniors age 70 and older are expected to receive second boosters this month as well. Dix said approximately 75,000 people in that demographic will become eligible over the coming weeks, as they pass the required six-month waiting period since their third dose.

It's unclear why so many younger British Columbians aren't rushing to accept their booster invitations, though the extensive spread of Omicron during the winter months could explain the lack of urgency.

Early in April, officials revealed that millions of people – approximately half of the province's population – had likely caught the variant since its arrival in late 2021.

While COVID-19 infection does boost protection, Henry cautioned the natural immunity in those who caught the virus in January and February is likely waning.

"We know that the protection from two doses of vaccine, or from recent infection, does wane over time," she said.

"You're now at a point where you need to get that extra boost as well."

The BCCDC does not advise people who catch Omicron to wait weeks or months before getting a booster, only until they are no longer sick. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization does "suggest that the booster dose may be deferred up to three months," according to the most recent guidance.

British Columbians do need to wait six months between their second dose and their third, with few exceptions. Some of the approximately 1.63 million residents who have only had two doses are not yet eligible for a booster.

Henry noted the evidence has been consistent and clear that getting vaccinated protects against serious illness and death.

In some cases, vaccination can also prevent people from catching COVID-19 altogether, though Omicron breakthrough infections have been common among the vaccinated.

"What we now know, in reality, is that three doses of a primary series of vaccine is needed to protect against Omicron. And yes, it does increase our protection against infection," Henry said. "It also boosts that protection against severe disease, and protects you from some of the long-term complications from COVID-19 that we are seeing even young people with milder illness can experience."