It was the kind of news that makes a person slap their forehead in disbelief.
On Monday, Toronto’s deputy medical officer of health, Na-Koshie Lamptey, told the city that a successful program that sends community ambassadors to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to targeted neighbourhoods might have to be wound down in a matter of weeks, for lack of funding.
Here is the kind of door-to-door effort that is desperately needed, involving a few hundred part-time employees reaching out to individuals and communities where vaccine take-up is low because of isolation, language barriers or hesitancy. And it all might end because no one wants to pay for it.
This is nuts. Canada spent tens of billions of dollars paying people to stay home during lockdowns. It has invested further billions in vaccines. The costs of treating the sickest COVID-19 patients has been enormous, while also creating a backlog of surgeries and other procedures that will require yet more billions of dollars to clear up.
But a low-cost, targeted program to overcome vaccine hesitancy – and hence lower the number of people who will need to be hospitalized from a COVID-19 infection – is up in the air for lack of money.
It makes no sense, but it is sadly typical of politicians’ lackadaisical attitude toward COVID-19, and their reluctance to face the truth – that it is almost guaranteed that there will be another wave this fall, if not earlier.
Politicians from coast to coast have been happy to reap the political rewards of ending mask mandates and proof-of-vaccination requirements in time for summer. But the same politicians are not taking the low-cost, pro-active measures to keep Canada in this good place, and to minimize the impact of the next wave.
Dr. Peter Juni, until recently the scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said in April that another wave of the disease in the fall, when people will be heading back indoors, is “almost baked in.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada has also been trying to get the message across that future COVID-19 waves are likely. “Our most significant risk may be a resurgence that coincides with the return of other seasonal respiratory viruses,” Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief public health officer of Canada, said last month.
Hoping for the best is not a policy – a lesson that should have been learned from the December wave of the virus that sent cases, hospitalizations and deaths spiking, and forced governments to temporarily bring back many restrictions.
We have to prepare for the worst. And when it comes to COVID-19, we have the tools not just to prepare for the worst, but to prevent it.
It is well known that vaccination helps to limit the impact of COVID-19 by reducing the odds of hospitalization or death from an infection. It can’t completely break the connection between infection and illness, but it greatly diminishes it. That means vaccines – and especially boosters, because vaccine effectiveness wanes over time – are essential, especially for people aged 50 and over.
On that score, Canada is failing. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but too many of our ounces of prevention are just sitting on a shelf.
There are still roughly 2.5 million Canadian adult who have never had a single dose of vaccine, including 225,000 in their 60s. Yet uptake of first doses is as low as it has ever been, and the rollout of third and fourth shots has effectively ground to a halt. The average daily number of boosters administered across the country has been stuck at around 5,000 in May; at that pace, it would take more than 15 years to boost every Canadian.
But the fall is just months away. Wise governments should be investing, today, in the one thing that can prevent yet another spike in hospitalizations and deaths.
Which means it’s not just Toronto that needs outreach programs designed to overcome vaccine hesitancy, and to make it as easy as possible for people to get their first, second, third or fourth doses.
All levels of government should be working together to prepare, and taking actions now to ensure that the worst predictions about the next wave of COVID-19 do not come to pass. Otherwise, that loud noise you hear in September might be the sound millions of incredulous Canadians slapping their foreheads.
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