Canada’s chief public health officer says without vaccines the third wave of COVID-19 in Canada would have been much deadlier.
Dr. Theresa Tam said Tuesday as vaccines began to roll out she was in awe of how well they began to ease the impact the pandemic was having on Canada’s elderly.
“We saw the numbers of cases, but also the serious outcomes declined very quickly in those populations,” said Tam.
A Canadian Press analysis of epidemiology data posted online by Health Canada shows in January, when the second wave of COVID-19 peaked, more than 4,000 Canadians over the age of 80 died from it.
In April, when the third wave peaked and most Canadians over 80 had at least one dose of vaccine, the number of deaths in that age group fell below 500.
The number of cases confirmed in people over 80 averaged more than 470 a day in January, and 122 in April.
While Canada’s slower than hoped vaccine rollout rankled throughout the winter, the emphasis was on getting vaccinations first to the people most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Less than one-tenth of Canadians over 80 had their first dose of vaccine by the end of January, but by the end of April almost 90 per cent had at least one dose and more than 15 per cent were fully vaccinated. In long-term care homes, where many of the worst outbreaks occurred, full vaccinations were largely completed by April.
That helped limit the outbreaks of COVID-19 in long-term care this spring.
As of June 19, only six per cent of people over 80 were not even partially vaccinated, and two-thirds are fully vaccinated.
“If you imagine this third wave without the vaccine, the mortality impact would have been much higher,” said Tam.
The death toll in the second wave averaged more than 150 deaths a day for part of January. In the third wave, the highest average death count was about one-third of that.
The lack of vaccinations among kids may also now be playing out in the spread of COVID-19.
Children and teenagers now account for the largest share of Canada’s total COVID-19 cases for the first time. Canadians in their 20s have accounted for the largest share of cases since last summer, but as of June 25, people under 19 now account for 19.3 per cent of the 1.4 million cases confirmed in Canada, slightly ahead of the 19.16 per cent for 20 to 29 year olds.
More than 60 per cent of teenagers now have at least one dose of vaccine, but children under 12 aren’t eligible for vaccinations yet. That fact, combined with the more transmissible Delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, is a conundrum for health policy-makers and politicians deciding what advice to give fully vaccinated adults.
New federal guidance issued by Tam’s office Friday suggests fully vaccinated people can take off their masks and socialize in close quarters with other people who are fully vaccinated. But families whose kids can’t be vaccinated were left wondering what that meant for them.
“More and more of us are asking when can we hug our loved ones, in particular grandparents, aunts and uncles are looking for advice for when they can share hugs with the kids in their lives,” Tam said.
“The answer is because children under 12 are not eligible for vaccinations yet, there is still a risk they can get infected with COVID-19 and pass the virus on to others. However, if you and everyone else around them are fully vaccinated, the risk is lower.”
Tam was less clear about what the new variants mean for lifting public masking requirements. Alberta intends to cancel its provincewide mask mandate on Canada Day. Saskatchewan will follow on July 11.
The World Health Organization said Friday fully vaccinated people should continue to wear masks in public because the vaccines aren’t preventing infections entirely.
Tam said the Delta variant will mean more people need to get fully vaccinated to prevent a punishing fourth wave this fall. Federal modelling released Friday incorporate the data on Delta for the first time, including that it is 1.5 times as infectious as the Alpha variant now dominant in Canada, and twice as virulent.
But Tam said if 80 per cent of Canadians between 12 and 54 are fully vaccinated by the fall, it should prevent another surge in hospitalizations.
Nationally, COVID-19 hospitalizations are at an eight-month low, with about 900 people currently in hospital. The number of people in intensive care is below 500 for the first time since November.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
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