Some British Columbians are hopping across the border for U.S. booster shots and rapid tests

As the Omicron variant began to rapidly spread around the world and in B.C., Brendan Quarry eagerly awaited word from the province that it was time to get his booster shot.

But, at that point, B.C.’s official booster shot roll out wouldn’t see the third jab available to all British Columbians until May 2022. Given the transmissibility of the new variant, Quarry, 53, was unwilling to wait to get increased protection.

“I just had to take things into my own hands and go to Washington State,” he said.

Quarry booked a vaccination time slot online at a mobile clinic in Lynden, Washington State, a ten-minute drive from the Aldergrove border crossing, for both himself and his wife.

As B.C. continues to vaccinate based on age and clinical vulnerability, some British Columbians are choosing to seek their vaccines elsewhere, often in Washington State, due to what they believe is slow roll out by the province.

“As I saw other countries and other provinces starting to expedite the rollout, I noticed that B.C. seemed to continue to plod along,” said Quarry.

A COVID-19 vaccination clinic is pictured at the Italian Cultural Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. (Ben Nelms)

‘Lean on the United States’

B.C. is currently gripped by a wave of new COVID-19 cases. This week, the province announced it was accelerating its booster shot timeline, with a new targeted completion date of the end of March.

Officials say that evidence shows two vaccine doses are not enough to stop an Omicron infection — though the vaccines appear to still substantially reduce the risk of hospitalization and serious illness. 

In Canada, many provinces have accelerated their booster shot programs. Earlier this week, both Alberta and Ontario opened boosters shots up to everyone 18 years of age and older.

Meanwhile, across the U.S., booster shots are available to anyone 16 years of age and older at vaccination clinics and local pharmacies.

“I never thought in my lifetime that I would lean on the United States for free healthcare,” said Quarry, who was offered the shot for free.

It’s a similar story for Vanessa Colleran in Coldstream, B.C., who also travelled to the states for her booster shot after her husband received his on a work trip to California.

On Dec. 14, they drove to the Rite Aid in Omak, Washington State, for her to get the shot.

“It was the easiest thing I think I’ve done in the last two years related to the pandemic. It was easier than getting our initial vaccines here in Canada,” she said.

Nearly 800,000 have 3rd dose in B.C.

Like Quarry, Colleran says there is a lack of urgency for B.C.’s booster shot roll out. Her husband, who is clinically vulnerable, waited six and half months before finally getting his booster shot in the states.

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said that the province’s goal of offering all adults a third-dose booster between six and eight months after their second vaccination was being done because the duration between shots offered the best vaccine protection.

This week the province said 18 per cent of all eligible adults, nearly 800,000 people, had received a third dose, which at present is in line with what other provinces have achieved.

Rapid tests

Sarita Hartson, who lives in Nelson, was keen to receive her booster vaccine because both of her parents are elderly and disabled and she and her husband see them weekly to provide support.

The couple drove down to the Walmart in Colville, Washington State to try and get booster shots, but Hartson said she wasn’t able to get the jab because the Walmart required an American address.

She did pick up a couple of boxes of rapid tests from the pharmacy, something she hasn’t been able to do in B.C.

The province is implementing a targeted approach with rapid testing, focusing on symptomatic people. (David Horemans)

In B.C., rapid tests are being provided by the government for symptomatic people at testing centres, long-term care facilities, vulnerable communities and businesses. However, they aren’t being made readily available to the public.

Hartson’s husband recently tested positive with one of the rapid tests she bought. She says it has given her the capacity to ensure that she isn’t unknowingly spreading the virus to her parents.

“They’re an important tool in the pandemic and we are not able to access them here in B.C.,” said Hartson about the tests which can provide results in as little as 15 minutes.

CBC News has reached out to the Ministry of Health for comment about residents heading to the U.S. for booster shots but it has yet to receive a response.

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