The present is looking more and more like the past – namely the start of the pandemic, in early 2020.
And in many ways, this is a rerun of the first round against COVID-19. A rapidly spreading virus. A lot of unknowns, but alarming evidence piling up. Border measures and travel restrictions coming in, slowly and incompletely. Governments eyeing public health and public opinion, and hesitating.
But the fact that we’ve already lived through this movie is an opportunity. How so? We have the benefit of experience. We’ve learned. If we repeat what we got right before, and fix what we got wrong, we can rewrite the ending of this story.
We know so many things now that we didn’t know then. And we have tools that we previously lacked. The most important of these – though not the only one – is vaccines.
Once vaccination took off earlier this year, it was a game changer. Omicron has abruptly tilted the game against us, but a rapid and universal rollout of booster shots can be a big part of tilting it back.
Which is why the accelerated booster-shot campaign that Ontario’s Doug Ford government announced on Wednesday is a major step in the right direction. However, given how fast Omicron is moving, and how big the wave already is, boosters alone can’t prevent a major rise in cases and hospitalizations over the coming weeks.
But let’s stick with the positive for a moment: Vaccines have been highly effective against previous variants of COVID-19, and they appear to be effective against Omicron. The challenge is that Omicron has a few tricks up its spike-protein sleeve, which accelerate the waning of a vaccine’s power to prevent infection and severe illness.
The evolving evidence is that this waning versus Omicron begins to kick in after three months. And the vast majority of Canadians got their second shot back in June or July – well over three months ago.
These people need a top up. By our count, about 25 million doubled-dosed adults have not had a booster shot. They are less vulnerable to Omicron than the unvaccinated, but more vulnerable to infection and serious illness than if they’d recently had a third shot.
That’s why Ontario, as of Monday, is opening up booster shot eligibility to everyone over the age of 18 (in most provinces, boosters are still largely reserved for seniors). Ontario is also halving the gap between second and third doses to just 12 weeks, and aiming to ramp up the daily number of boosters going into arms to at least 200,000.
Other provinces should immediately follow suit. Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos says that Canada has 16 million booster doses on hand and is buying millions more. There is no reason to delay.
Canada should be emulating Britain, which launched its emergency booster campaign at the start of the week, and aims to deliver 23 million shots by the end of the month.
Canada can match that pace. It will mean restarting mass vaccination clinics, as Ontario is doing, and partnering with businesses, unions, family doctors and others. Consider this: Canada has nearly 11,000 pharmacies. If each of them gave an average of just 50 shots a day, that would be more than 3.8 million jabs a week.
An aggressive booster campaign is necessary – but it can’t come soon enough. Omicron may have just arrived, but because it is so much more infectious than Delta, it’s driving an unprecedented new wave. Ontario’s Science Table estimates that it’s already responsible for more than half of all new cases in the province; as of Wednesday infections were doubling every 2.2 days.
In the long run, getting boosters into every Canadian will reduce infections and save a lot of people from ending up in hospital. But even a hyper-speed vaccination campaign will take weeks, and the Omicron tsunami wave is already upon us. The only way to try to get ahead of it is with old-fashioned public-health measures such as masks, ventilation and capacity limits.
Widespread use of rapid tests, which both Ontario and Ottawa put a lot of stock in on Wednesday, will help. But an immediate return to capacity limits in indoor public spaces cannot be avoided. Mr. Ford’s only concession on that was to ask that large venues such as NHL hockey arenas move to 50-per-cent capacity. It’s not enough.
In the long run, we will be able to vaccinate our way out of Omicron. Not in the short term.
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