Facing a fall COVID surge, Tam calls on Canadians to get their bivalent booster shots
Tam says public health measures help 'buy time' when Canada's health care system is under strain
Canada's chief public health officer said Tuesday that Canadians should get their dose of a recently authorized bivalent vaccine to stave off a fall resurgence of COVID-19 — a development that could prompt the return of some pandemic-related restrictions.
At an appearance before MPs on the Commons health committee, Dr. Theresa Tam said the decision to restore COVID measures — such as mandatory masking and school closures — will fall largely to the provinces and territories.
The federal government did away with its pandemic-related border measures earlier this month, but warned that they could return if the pandemic situation deteriorates.
Tam defended the past use of these measures under questioning from the Opposition Conservatives Tuesday.
She said the U.S. has seen three times more COVID-related deaths per capita than Canada because it took a more permissive approach to the virus.
"The outcome for Canada has been relatively good," Tam said.
More than 45,000 people have died here from COVID-related complications.
Pointing to a Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) study, Tam said that the number of Canadian deaths could have been many times higher in the absence of restrictions and widely available vaccines.
It might turn out to be prudent to bring back some of those restrictions to shore up Canada's fragile health care system, Tam said.
"If any public health measures are put in place, [they are] there to buy time," she said. "It's a balance between reducing transmission and its impacts and then of course the potential negative effects of these measures on a society."
If Canadians want to avoid more aggressive pandemic measures, Tam said, getting "up to date" on their vaccine doses is the best option.
"Overall, population immunity may be falling and leaving us less protected," Tam said. "Hospitalizations are elevated or actually increasing in some areas and this could be an early sign of a fall resurgence."
The bivalent shots developed by Moderna and Pfizer protect against the original strain of the virus and the Omicron variants, which are dominant in Canada.
Both have been authorized by Health Canada, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other regulatory bodies.
Tam said the country is grappling with a number of "uncertainties" about the path the pandemic will take in the coming months.
The 'worst-case scenario'
Canada is preparing for the possibility of a "worst-case scenario," she said — new variants that are vaccine-evasive or much more virulent than what we've experienced to this point.
"We haven't detected one of those yet but we need to be prepared for the potential," she said.
Years past saw a seasonal spike in COVID cases as Canadians moved more of their activities indoors as the weather cooled.
Tam said there could be a similar development this year because of a dip in "population-level immunity" due to the fact that relatively few Canadians have had their third booster doses, let alone doses of the new bivalent booster.
Tam said eligible Canadians should heed the advice of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), an independent body made up of volunteer vaccine experts, and get a bivalent dose six months after their last COVID shot or infection.
While most Canadians embraced the primary series of the vaccine — the first two shots of mRNA products like those offered by Moderna and Pfizer — the uptake for third booster doses has been much lower.
According to government data, 80.3 per cent of people in Canada have had two doses. Just 49.6 per cent of the population has had a third shot.
While older Canadians — the group most susceptible to severe outcomes — have better booster vaccination rates, "younger Canadians are reporting lower coverage," Tam said.
Tam said public health experts are alarmed at the relatively small number of people who are "up to date" with their COVID shots.
Only 18 per cent of the Canadian population has had a shot in the past six months.
That's an issue because vaccine protection is known to wane over time, Tam said.