High vaccine uptake should stem 4th wave in N.L., Fitzgerald says

A fourth wave of COVID-19 is leading to a spike in cases across Canada, but the province's public health leader says a high vaccination rate should mitigate potential outbreaks.

Province has relaxed public health restrictions, but Fitzgerald still recommends caution

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says Newfoundland and Labrador's epidemiology and high vaccine uptake led the province to relax some public health restrictions. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

A fourth wave of COVID-19 is spreading across Canada, but Newfoundland and Labrador's public health leader says the province's high vaccination rate should mitigate the impact of potential outbreaks.

In recent weeks, Newfoundland and Labrador has relaxed some of the public health restrictions that many credit with the province's relatively low case numbers. 

Masks are no longer mandatory in most indoor public spaces, fully and partially vaccinated travellers have no testing or self-isolation requirements and up to 500 people are permitted at indoor gatherings.

In an interview with The St. John's Morning Show, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, chief medical officer of health, said policies are implemented under the Public Health Protection and Promotion Act, which states the government must use the least restrictive measures possible to mitigate the spread of infection.

As of Monday, the last time the provincial government provided a caseload update, there were nine active cases of COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

According to Fitzgerald, since the province's case numbers are so low and the vaccination rate is so high, some special orders — which for months included a staunch travel ban and limits on gatherings — no longer meet the legal threshold.

"It's really just making sure that we're staying within the spirit of the law and that we're providing the best advice possible," said Fitzgerald.

She said public health still recommends taking precautions like wearing a mask when possible. Fitzgerald said she still wears one while in a public place like the grocery store.

Fitzgerald said more evidence about masks has emerged as the pandemic has progressed. She said evidence now shows that wearing a mask can provide some level of protection for both the wearer and the people around them. Previous evidence only showed protection for people around the person wearing a mask.

Vaccines and the 4th wave

Fitzgerald said the province is closely watching the progression of the fourth wave in Canada, but vaccinations have changed how the province moves forward.

"We know that there's a reduction in transmission when it comes to vaccinations, and we know that vaccinations help to prevent severe disease," she said. "If we're talking milder cases without severe disease, that's quite different than what we've seen in the past."

The province has seen cases of COVID-19 in vaccinated people, some of whom have developed serious illness. Fitzgerald said the cases are not unexpected since vaccinated people can still become infected but the risk of developing severe disease is still greater for those who are unvaccinated.

As of Monday, over 85 per cent of the eligible population of the province had had at least one dose of the vaccine, while 67 per cent had had two doses.

The province is not yet considering mandating vaccines, says Fitzgerald. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

"I'm very happy with that," Fitzgerald said. "We want to see that as high as we can get it."

She said it's important for people who have gotten their first dose to get their second dose as well.

She said 85 per cent of the eligible population of Newfoundland and Labrador needs to be vaccinated in order to provide greater protection for the population as a whole.

Although some regions and organizations have mandated vaccines, Fitzgerald said the province isn't moving in that direction yet. She said the province's vaccination rate is high enough that mandating vaccines may not bump it up by much.

Back to school and back to normal

Last week, the province announced a back-to-school plan that will allow students to move around freely without wearing a mask.

Fitzgerald said the plan is about getting students back to normal as quickly as possible.

There is currently no approved vaccine for children under the age of 12, and Fitzgerald estimates it will be late fall or early winter before one becomes available. Pfizer will likely be the first manufacturer to seek Health Canada approval, she said.

The fact that children can't get a shot is another reason for older folks to roll up their sleeves, she said.

"If communities around them are safe and protected and vaccinated … the risk to them will be lower," she said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador