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New Brunswick

Dr. Lisa Barrett on bivalent boosters, the flu shot, and third fall with COVID-19

At this point in the pandemic, many people have returned to their previous COVID-19 behavior. They are no longer wearing masks, shopping in person and attending large events, and as temperatures drop and the holiday season begins, many people will be spending more time indoors and with more people.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Lisa Barrett, during an interview with CTV Morning Live Atlantic on Tuesday, weighed what we can expect during the third fall-winter season living in a pandemic.

She says the focus in the Maritimes has shifted from individual COVID-19 numbers to broader thinking about the respiratory season. But, she adds, there are still high rates of the virus in the community.

“We see it in our hospitals, whether people come in with lung problems or breathing problems or other body systems that are affected, if they then have their COVID,” she says.

In addition to COVID-19, flu cases are also popping up across the country.

Flu vaccination appointments opened in Nova Scotia last week, with public health saying the province has already had “some” cases of influenza.

“We are encountering both common respiratory viruses and COVID very strongly at a rate we would expect – which means we should all be aware of how we need to stay healthy over the next few months,” says Barrett.

As people roll up their sleeves for their bivalent boosters, there are also rumors of two new Omicron variants.

While some refer to them as “rapidly spreading” variants, Barrett says that’s a relative term.

“It is not yet clear whether they are more spreadable. To be honest, I’m just assuming that any Omicron virus that’s going around, or any other COVID virus, is very, very common. The subtleties, how much more spreadable? Not relevant.”

Barrett adds that the case dose people receive is aimed at “updating and maximizing” their immunity to COVID-19 and is not intended solely to protect against infection.

“It was never the plan,” she says. “The goal is to update and optimize your chance of staying out of hospital in the fall if you encounter COVID. The bivalent vaccines are there to add more power and robustness to your response to COVID and certainly the bivalent vaccines are the way to go.”

Barrett points to three things people should be aware of during the colder months – the first is that people should give out their boosters from a possible previous COVID-19 infection in the recommended amount of time.

She says people should also test for COVID if they have cold symptoms so they can get vaccines at the right time to give their bodies “the best chance of having the best response.”

“And number three, make sure you get it with your influenza vaccine – both are important this season.”

For people who may be hesitant to get their fall booster, Barrett says vaccines are best at preventing vulnerable people from getting sick when most people get them.

“But don’t forget that there is a purely ‘for yourself’ reason to get an extra dose of vaccine this fall. They want the best protection,” she says. “To stay healthy, stay healthy this fall and get the most out of our lives post COVID lockdown, staying healthy is a really good idea. Nobody wants to get sick … so the booster is also good for the individual.”

Looking ahead to the winter, Barrett says the key is to be prepared.

“The influenza that’s circulating in other parts of the world is primarily something called H3N2. It can cause a fairly severe flu. Add COVID and it’s not just your lungs, it’s other systems as well, potentially ending up in hospitals for people with other health issues. We all have to be aware that this could be a difficult season.”

However, she says people can still safely enjoy everyday things.

“Nobody says ‘don’t go to your favorite singer at a big concert’ but consider wearing some masks at times like this so we can keep ourselves healthy but also keep the virus at reasonable levels, let’s have enough of us go to work and take care of people if and when they need help in hospital systems.”

When asked if she thinks an end to the pandemic is on the horizon, Barrett says it’s more of a “worldwide issue,” but she agrees we’re in the next phase.

“People should be reassured that we are dealing with managing the pandemic,” she says. “Do the simple stuff and hopefully a year from now we’ll be able to say something like, ‘The pandemic is over now and we’re past that management phase.’ We arrive!”

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