With an expected surge in respiratory illnesses this fall, national seniors advocacy group CanAge is calling on the province to fund all federally recommended vaccines and focus on getting them into the arms of as many seniors as possible.

“Fall is a ticking time bomb for respiratory illnesses…We’re coming into flu season, and this year there’s RSV. And there’s a new strain (of COVID-19) that is hitting vulnerable seniors very hard, and then also pneumonia,” CanAge CEO Laura Tamblyn Watts said in an interview Friday. 

“And that grouping of four illnesses together means that we are going to see a huge rise in preventable infections. I say preventable because we know we have vaccines for all of these.”

Tamblyn Watts, who lives in Digby County, said the province’s health care crisis is well known. She believes the “most effective, important, and cheapest thing” that would help ease pressure on the system is funding all vaccines recommended by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) and ensuring as many people as possible get them.

“That’s going to keep people safe, healthy, and well. It’s also going to keep our economy going and our health care systems freed up,” she said. 

“Now we have, at long last in our province, finally made good on the promise to fully fund the seniors-specific flu vaccine. So that is good. So we’ve seen some progress. We’ve seen no progress on the other vaccines.”

Adult safety, she said, isn’t just about seniors. It includes those who are immune compromised and people working in congregate settings like schools, hospitals, and in long-term care.

“What we want is Nova Scotians to be able to hug their grandchildren or their children without worrying that this is going to kill them,” she said.

A serious looking woman with blond hair wearing a white blazer and black shirt stands against a grey wall and looks at the camera.
CanAge CEO Laura Tamblyn Watts Credit: Contributed/CanAge

Problems with funding and access

In August, Health Canada announced it had approved a new RSV vaccine for adults 60 and over. However, the federal health body told CBC News it anticipated there would only be a limited supply available this flu season. 

In September, CanAge released its third annual national report card on adult vaccination in Canada. It found programs nationwide are failing to adequately protect Canadians. The average national grade was ‘F,’ with Nova Scotia scoring a D. 

“That is a slight improvement from last year’s D-minus, but that’s still not a report card that you want to bring home,” Tamblyn Watts said of Nova Scotia’s score. 

One improvement highlighted in the report was that Nova Scotia now covers the senior-specific quadrivalent high-dose flu vaccine. Also mentioned was a jump in the awareness category (transparency/patient education initiatives) from D+ last year to an ‘A’ grade this year. Tamblyn Watts said the provincial government excelled at messaging, and got top marks because it changed and updated its seniors guide and website information. 

But the problems of funding and access remain.

“Access still gets an F. It’s really hard to get your vaccines in Nova Scotia, and that doesn’t need to be the case because we did a terrific job with COVID-19 distribution,” she said. 

“So now what we need to do is use all of those distribution networks, not just for COVID-19, but for others as well. That could move very quickly and easily if they wanted to.”

Need to keep up with newest vaccines

In Nova Scotia, the pneumonia vaccine is listed by the province as publicly funded and available for adults age 65 and older. It’s also available to those living with specific high-risk conditions. However, the CanAge report noted that NACI recommendations “changed significantly” in early 2023, and Nova Scotia got a failing grade because it hasn’t kept up.

“We did not find any evidence that Nova Scotia has updated its supply for pneumonia vaccines in line with the NACI recommendations made over 6 months ago,” the report said. 

CanAge highlights the fact that a new pneumonia vaccine is now available. Tamblyn Watts said Nova Scotia hasn’t yet indicated if it will cover it. 

“We need to make sure that we are keeping up with the newest vaccines. We don’t want to be giving people old vaccines,” she said. 

“The new one just got NACI recommendations that hits it out of the ballpark. We could be preventing the pain and suffering of adults, of seniors in particular, and saving our health care system by doing this one thing.” 

Access to data ‘a serious concern’

While provincial and federal governments expanded monitoring to include many respiratory infections, CanAge flagged lags in reporting or an absence of public access to data as a serious concern. 

“Nova Scotia does a very poor job making clear where we are in terms of both public infection and also where we are with vaccination. But we are a shockingly unvaccinated province when it comes to the basic NACI recommendations,” Tamblyn Watts said. 

“One of the reasons is we don’t cover them. So then the reporting is something that’s easy to keep quiet. If we’re not actually covering the vaccines, then we’re telling Nova Scotians, we don’t care about your health the way that we should. We’re going to let you get sick, and then we’re going to deal with you as an acute care issue.”

Describing it as a life and death issue, Tamblyn Watts said seniors hospitalized with flu spend on average between 10 and 14 days in hospital. She said when vaccinated, chances of hospitalization plummet.

“If you look at pneumonia, which most people don’t even realize you can get a vaccine for, the average hospital stay is eight days if you’re hospitalized,” she said. 

“You may think to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s OK. It’s less serious.’ But the average is shorter because people die.”

Tamblyn Watts is also calling on employers to pitch in and help ensure people get all their fall vaccinations. 

“We’re encouraging employers to open up those vaccinations to those family members as well, because an employee gets it from their kids and their grandparents and their other relationships,” she said. “So we think that business also has a great opportunity to help with the vaccine rollout.”

Failing grade providing shingles vaccine 

Unrelated to respiratory illnesses, Tamblyn Watts said the province also received a failing grade when it comes to publicly funding the shingles vaccine for all adults 50 and older. The report said while seniors have “long advocated” for coverage for best in class shingles vaccines, the province has yet to move on it. 

“One in three people over the age of 50 will get shingles if they’re unvaccinated, and one in two will get it over the age of 65 if they’re unvaccinated. It is so painful. The only thing that you can really do is take opioids, which is another public health emergency,” Tamblyn Watts said.

“And it costs a couple hundred bucks privately, which is a huge impediment for most Nova Scotians and particularly people living on a fixed income. So we need to be doing better with that funding. And they’ve not announced that they’re going to cover the new pneumonia vaccine.”

Waiting on Dr. Robert Strang’s fall vaccine rollout plan

On Tuesday, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health is scheduled to provide an update on respiratory illnesses and the province’s fall vaccine rollout plan. Tamblyn Watts said she hopes that among other things, Dr. Robert Strang has a plan for RSV.

“Many people may not realize that we have a brand new vaccine for adults, and particularly for vulnerable adults, for RSV,” she said. 

“We think about RSV for kids and there’s a vaccine for them. We need to see whether Nova Scotia, like Ontario, is going to be rolling out an RSV vaccine. I’m doubtful, but they should.”

Another key piece Tamblyn Watts hopes to see in Strang’s messaging is a focus on what she called co-administration.

“Is Dr. Strang going to be telling Nova Scotians as clearly as possible, ‘Don’t just get your flu shot. Get your COVID shot, and where possible, get your pneumonia shot at the same time?’ Because we have slipped back in Nova Scotia with our vaccination rates,” she said. 

“I want to see Dr. Strang get up there and say, ‘Get out to your local pharmacy or your public health site, get all of the vaccines, and get them at the same time. It’s safe, it’s effective, and you only have to go in once.’ That is a strategy that we have not yet seen in Nova Scotia. And it makes so much sense.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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