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COVID vaccine third dose expanded to Quebecers 60 and over and health-care workers

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MONTREAL — Quebec will relax restrictions on private gatherings ahead of Christmas, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Tuesday as he announced the province's plan to gradually expand access to third doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

Quebecers will be able to have private gatherings of up to 20 people — up from the current limit of 10 — starting Dec. 23, Dubé told reporters in Quebec City.

"We are keeping all the same measures that we have right now with one exception, which is private gatherings in houses," Dubé said.

Dubé said he's making a "firm recommendation" that those private gatherings include only people who are vaccinated against COVID-19, though the province won't require people to check vaccine passports of their friends and family.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec's public health director, said he's encouraging people who plan to host gatherings not to invite people who are unvaccinated, adding that most people in intensive care due to a COVID-19 infection have not been vaccinated.

"I don't want to make tensions between families, but it's a question of health," he said. "It's also for the protection of the unvaccinated person."

Arruda said he was able to recommend larger gatherings in part because recent screening showed that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was not yet circulating in the province. Those findings were based on screening of a single day of new cases Nov. 30, four days after the World Health Organization declared Omicron a variant of concern.

The announcement came as Dubé said people with chronic illnesses that may put them at risk of complications from COVID-19, health-care workers, pregnant women and those who live in remote areas will be able to book appointments for a third dose immediately. There are around one million people in those groups, he said.

The province will expand access to those aged 60 to 69 in early January, Dubé said, but it does not have enough vaccinators to begin administering third doses to that group yet.

The third dose must be administered at least six months after the second, Dubé added.

On Friday, the federal government's National Advisory Committee on Immunization said it strongly recommends booster shots be given to people 50 and over and that those 18 to 49 could also receive them.

But Arruda said waning immunity has only been observed among Quebecers aged 80 and over and that people 70 to 79 were made eligible for a third dose out of "prudence."

Fully vaccinated people 60 to 69 still have a high level of immunity against COVID-19, Arruda said, adding that if there's any sign of waning immunity in younger age groups, third-dose eligibility will be expanded.

Quebec had only been offering third doses of COVID-19 vaccines to people 70 and over, to certain people with weakened immune systems and to those who received two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Arruda said that with increased contacts over the Christmas holidays, he expects the number of new COVID-19 cases in the province to rise.

"But the issue, it's not going to be the cases, the issue is going to be how many of those cases must go to hospitals and intensive care," he said. "I'm not happy that people get the disease, but at the same time, if the disease is only like a flu or a small cold and has no impact, that's what we're looking for."

Earlier in the day, Quebec reported 1,234 new cases of COVID-19 and five additional deaths linked to the novel coronavirus. Authorities said 235 people were in hospital, an increase of nine from the day before, and 58 people were in intensive care.

The province has seen an average of 1,270 daily new COVID-19 cases over the past week, up from 728 two weeks ago.

The Health Department said 86 per cent of Quebecers aged five and over have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 81 per cent are considered adequately vaccinated.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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