VICTORIA — British Columbia is offering a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccines to seniors, starting with residents of long-term care and assisted-living homes as the level of protection since their last shot up to six months ago is waning.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Tuesday that people over age 70 in the community, Indigenous people 55 and up and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable will also be included in a vaccination campaign that will ramp up through the spring.

Henry said a second booster shot is not expected to be offered to younger people, who are less likely to be hospitalized. 

“I don’t foresee that in the near future. We don’t know what’s going to happen when we come up to late summer, early fall when we expect to be back in respiratory season,” she said.

It’s possible that an annual booster shot will be needed, though maybe only for people who are most at risk of infection, Henry said. 

About 50 per cent of B.C.’s population has developed antibodies to the virus through vaccination or infection, Henry said.

Transmission, hospitalizations and deaths have levelled off markedly, she said. 

Henry said that means it’s time to move away from public health orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has recommended a fourth dose for those who are more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19.

Quebec said Tuesday that it would be expanding access to fourth doses, while Ontario said it would announce a plan Wednesday to start offering an additional booster to people 60 and older.

A mask mandate was lifted March 11 in Quebec, but the province announced Tuesday that a rise in infections and hospitalizations means masks will again be required in indoor public spaces, at least until the end of the month. 

Henry said cases are expected to rise slightly in B.C. into May as people travel and participate in more activities but that masks would not be reintroduced because of the high level of immunity in the province.

“But it will be a transition period for all of us,” she said. “And we’ll have to manage that. We’ll have to support each other and be positive in how we do that over the next few weeks and months.”

However, preventing infection is important because of the possibility of developing long COVID, which can cause inflammation of the heart, the lining of the heart and blood vessels leading to stroke and heart attacks, Henry said.

Some studies show a 50 per cent reduction in risk of long COVID from two doses of vaccine, she said.

“So, this is my plea to people now: recognize that we’re in a place right now where we have a level of immunity, we have decreasing transmission in our communities. But you need to protect yourself from the risks of this virus, and it will change. We’ve seen that globally.”

Starting Friday, a vaccine card will no longer be needed to enter sports venues and restaurants, and the province will also be removing the requirement for those in post-secondary residence to be vaccinated.

B.C. dropped plans last month for all regulated health professionals to be vaccinated, but Henry said officials are working with regulatory colleges so patients can know if their dentist or massage therapist, for example, is vaccinated before making informed decisions about their care.

So far, 59 per cent of British Columbians aged 18 and up have received a third dose of vaccine. Health Minister Adrian Dix has said the government would like more people to get their first booster shot.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday that just over 91 per cent of residents 12 and older have had two doses of vaccine. There were 334 people in hospital, up from 321 on Monday, with 35 people in intensive care. No death toll was released. 

Henry told the briefing that officials would be moving to a weekly update on Thursdays, when they would publish vaccination figures, hospitalizations and fatalities. 

— By Camille Bains in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 5, 2022. 

The Canadian Press