Why Canada could soon turn the corner in the pandemic — even if it doesn't feel like it yet
International data signals brighter days ahead as COVID-19 vaccinations pick up speed at home
This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven't subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.
Vaccines are now rolling out across Canada at a rapid pace as supply has finally begun to catch up with demand. While we're still far from returning to normal life, Canadians are more and more protected from the worst of COVID-19 with each passing day.
Early research from countries that are further ahead in their vaccine rollout has been overwhelmingly positive, suggesting protection from even a single dose is robust and the growing number of shots in arms signals a much brighter future for Canada.
But while we're not quite where we need to be yet and we still need to remain vigilant, experts say things haven't looked this good for quite some time as we head toward what many hope is the final stretch of the pandemic in this country.
"From this point on, things are going to get better every single day," said Raywat Deonandan, a global health epidemiologist and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. "Vaccination works."
Even a cursory look around the globe gives a glimpse of why there is reason for optimism here at home.
With more than 50 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, Israel reported slightly more than 200 COVID-19 cases and five deaths during the past week — down from a record high of more than 60,000 cases and 400 deaths in one devastating week in mid-January.
The United Kingdom saw its COVID-19 hospitalizations drop below 1,000 for the first time in months, down from a high of more than 4,000 in January, and daily deaths fell to single digits as the strategy of delaying second doses — similar to Canada's approach — continues to pay off.
And while the U.S. has yet to partially vaccinate half of its population, it recorded its single lowest COVID-19 case rate in more than eight months on Sunday and its seven-day average of daily deaths fell to its lowest level since October.
Canada doesn't have as much vaccination coverage, but we're catching up.
Close to 50 per cent of eligible Canadians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to date, and we're already starting to see the results.
There are fewer than 4,000 people in hospital for the first time since mid-April, which accounts for an eight per cent drop from the previous week. ICU admissions are also down five per cent week over week, sitting at just under 1,400.
In Canada's largest province, recent data from Public Health Ontario showed COVID-19 vaccines have been very effective against infection and hospitalization.
Of the 3.5 million Ontarians partially or fully vaccinated as of April 17, just 2,223 became infected — a breakthrough infection rate of just 0.06 per cent — with about two-thirds of cases occurring within 14 days of a first dose, when antibodies have yet to fully build up.
"Where I'm working, there's a lot more hope and optimism in the staff, knowing that people are getting vaccinated," said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University.
"There's an end in sight to all of this and I think that's the one thing that is really sparking a lot of optimism in health care."
'High level' of COVID-19 could jeopardize progress
We're also learning more about the protection that one dose offers, even when second doses are delayed, as new research on immunogenicity and effectiveness rapidly emerges.
A new study from the U.K. found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine generated antibody responses 3½ times larger in older people when a second dose was delayed to three months after the first.
A recent study in The Lancet looked at more than 23,000 vaccinated health-care workers in the U.K. from December to February and found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was at least 70 per cent effective at preventing COVID-19 three weeks after the first dose.
And another Lancet study looked at more than 1.3 million people in Scotland during the same time period and found the Pfizer shot was more than 90 per cent effective at preventing hospitalization due to COVID-19 four to five weeks after the initial dose.
That study also analyzed the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine in the same population and found it was 88 per cent effective at curbing hospital admissions from COVID-19 after one shot.
But while the vaccines are doing an incredible job at preventing severe illness and death, the number of daily infections across Canada remains high and threatens to jeopardize the progress we've made.
"Your risk of developing severe disease is reduced drastically after two doses and even after one, which is something to be very optimistic and celebrate about," said Prof. Alyson Kelvin, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University and virologist at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology and the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatoon.
"But what we need to keep in mind is that there's still quite a high level of virus transmission within the community."
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, warned Canadians on May 8 that even two doses of vaccine don't offer full protection from COVID-19.
"It's not absolute," Tam said during a virtual town hall in the Yukon. "There's reduction in your risk of transmission, but it doesn't necessarily eliminate your risk of transmission."
Deonandan says that's akin to taking a "glass half empty approach" to the situation, given the positive impact vaccines are already having on our health-care system and in other countries around the world.
Tam had a more positive outlook on Friday, saying Canadians who have received one dose can socialize with close family and friends outdoors over the summer months.
"Vaccines will be a major help in keeping your rates low and point toward a future that includes some of these activities that we've longed for without a resurgence happening," Tam said.
"Individuals with one dose should feel more confident that they're better protected, but you've got to get that second dose for maximal protection."
WATCH | Tam discusses differences between the 2020 and 2021 pandemic summers in Canada:
Tam said a more social summer will depend on most Canadians staying apart for the rest of the spring, because the case count is still too high and vaccination coverage too low to do away with public health measures right now — even for partially vaccinated people.
That guidance came a day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced fully vaccinated Americans could stop wearing masks inside in most places.
While the concept of drastically loosening public health restrictions still seems far off in Canada, there is hope for a gradual return to some normalcy this summer.
"We can have a better summer," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday. "A one-dose summer."
Trudeau said once 75 per cent of the adult population has had at least one vaccine dose, provinces and territories can begin to lift public health restrictions — but until then, Canadians should remain vigilant to avoid sparking a fourth wave.
"It's not going to be the summer of us being back to the way we were in January of 2020, but it's going to be the summer of us looking forward to things being normal," Chagla said.
"To at least do some low-risk outdoor stuff together, to visit each other, to be able to engage with each other, being careful, but at least being able to do more than we've done in the past."
To read the entire Second Opinion newsletter every Saturday morning, subscribe by clicking here.
With files from Lauren Pelley