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Jars full of empty COVID-19 vaccine vials are shown as a pharmacist works behind the counter at the Junction Chemist pharmacy during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on April 6.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario is expanding eligibility for second COVID-19 booster vaccines to all adults this week, targeting high-risk individuals amid a growing seventh wave of the virus.

On Wednesday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore said the province will offer second booster shots to everyone between 18 and 59 years old who received their last dose more than five months ago. Eligible Ontarians must also wait three months after a COVID-19 infection.

Residents can book a second booster dose starting at 8 a.m. Thursday morning through the province’s vaccination portal, participating pharmacies or directly through public-health units.

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Dr. Moore previously said the province would likely expand access to second booster vaccines in the fall, but moved up the timeline to provide the option for additional protection this summer. The province is battling an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations driven by the new Omicron subvariant, BA.5, and has also been dealing with packed hospital emergency rooms and staffing shortages.

The eligibility expansion to adults under 60 is aimed at those who are immunocompromised or work in a high-risk setting and may benefit from additional protection. Healthy individuals who received a first booster dose are still significantly protected, and Dr. Moore said “it’s not absolutely necessary” for them to get a second; instead, they may choose to wait until the fall when a new vaccine that would specifically target Omicron variants is expected to be available.

A second booster can decrease transmission risk by about 60 per cent, Dr. Moore said, encouraging Ontarians to speak with their health care provider about if they should get the shot at this time.

“You may get a second booster dose, but it’s not a ‘should.’ It is absolutely a ‘may’ depending on your personal circumstances,” he told reporters. “We have persistent and powerful immunity stretching past six months in younger and healthier people so it’s not an obligation to get a second booster dose.”

For residents who choose to get a second booster now, Dr. Moore said they would still be eligible for the Omicron-specific vaccination in the fall but will need to wait between shots, though the length of time has not been specified.

A second booster dose was already made available to people 60 and up and Indigenous adults in April, and on Wednesday Dr. Moore issued a “call to arms” for the 1.6 million people who have yet to receive it and another five million people who haven’t received a first booster dose. Vaccine uptake has increased in recent weeks, doubling from about 8,000 to 16,000 doses a day. (The province has the capacity to vaccinate 100,000 Ontarians daily.)

Ontario’s health care system continues to face significant pressure this summer. Average emergency room wait times for those needing to stay in hospital hit 20.1 hours in May, a 14-year record aside from this January at the height of the Omicron wave. Several hospital emergency departments in rural regions of the province have had to temporarily close and restrict hours over the last few weeks due to a shortage of staff.

Wastewater data shows cases are trending up across the province and COVID-19 related hospitalizations are on the rise. Dr. Moore said this wave is mostly attributable to BA.5, which has become the dominant strain in Ontario this month and is more transmissible than some of the previous strains.

“While we’ve entered a new wave, Ontario is experiencing a lower trajectory in this wave as opposed to previous waves and we expect to see the peak of this activity in the next two weeks,” he said, noting the province is experiencing a new COVID-19 wave about every 90 days.

Despite the spike in cases, Dr. Moore said he isn’t currently recommending reinstating public-health measures, including a widespread indoor mask mandate, but that could change if hospitalizations rise and impact the ability to provide emergency care. Currently, ICU occupancy is at 70 per cent across the province.

Ontario is also expanding its rapid antigen test program until the end of the year where testing kits are available to the general public in grocery stores and pharmacies as well as workplaces, hospitals, long-term care and retirement homes.

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