Local virologist backs province’s plans to expand COVID-19 vaccine booster eligibility

By Germain Ma

A local virologist is backing the province's plans to expand eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots.

Dr. Stephanie Dewitte-Orr, associate professor in health sciences and biology at Wilfrid Laurier University also echos the region's Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Hsui-Li Wang's recent call to pause re-opening until experts have more knowledge of the Omicron variant.

She said the next couple of weeks will be telling as to how the variant can impact Waterloo Region. 

Dewitte-Orr said if Omicron isn't already in the region, it will likely be here soon, if the variant is as fit to become the dominant strain as many experts believe it could be.

“I think the fact that so quickly after South Africa announced Omicron, it was found in many places throughout the globe means the strain was around before South Africa discovered it, so whether it's in Waterloo Region yet, I don't know,” she said. 

She said scientists are expecting to get more real world data on aspects like whether the variant causes more serious infection or if there are any differences in age susceptibility. 

She adds that experts are still figuring out how much having two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine protects against Omicron, but they can comfortably say that it provides partial immunity.

Dewitte-Orr said there may also need to be a booster shot that is Omicron-specific.

She said, “For our region, a lot of us got vaccinated in July, which means that our six month point is starting in December and January. It means that we're going to have a large portion of Waterloo Region who's experiencing waning immunity in the winter.”

The virologist also added that she would like to see more access to rapid antigen tests, which could help residents as they gather during the holidays.

But, Dewitte-Orr stresses that getting our region vaccinated isn't 100 per cent of the answer, though it is part of it. 

“It keeps you out of the hospital, but it doesn't completely stop you from getting infected. It doesn't completely stop you from transmitting the virus, so it doesn't mean if you're vaccinated or if we have a large portion of our population vaccinated that the virus isn't still going to be here. That's what stinks,” she said. 

She said the region's high vaccine rate will still help the community stay healthy against Omicron; however, what happens globally will impact our community. 

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