April was a brutal month in Canada’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Not even the Atlantic provinces, which had until then contained the spread of the disease to a remarkable degree, escaped unscathed. In Nova Scotia, for instance, a late-April surge in cases led to the return of bans on travel and indoor dining at restaurants, and the closing of schools and non-essential businesses.
But along with that setback, and a rise in cases in the rest of the country that has pushed some provincial health care systems to the brink, there was also an outbreak of positive news in the final days of an unlamented month.
The biggest news was about vaccines: They’re here, and they work.
That the vaccines are effective has never been more clear than in the success Ontario and Quebec have had reducing deaths in long-term care homes. The killing fields of the first and second pandemic waves now rarely see COVID-19 fatalities, thanks to an all-out effort to vaccinate residents and staff in January and February. Ontario recorded just four LTC resident deaths in April.
The vaccines’ worth is also being seen in real-world testing in countries that have achieved high rates of vaccination.
In Britain, where 70 per cent of the population has received one dose of a vaccine, Public Health England said on Friday that the total number of cases in the country, which has been dropping steadily since January, fell by another 40 per cent in a single week at the end of April.
In Israel, where 56 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, the rate of infection has dropped from a peak of about 10,000 a day to as low as 140. Life has largely returned to normal.
Here in Canada, by the end of April, 34.5 per cent of the population had been given at least one dose of vaccine. The number of people in hospital and in intensive care was still high, but the rise in cases appeared to have plateaued.
And now vaccines are rolling in. Almost two million arrived last week, and more are on the way in May: two million doses a week of Pfizer-BioNTech, at least one million Moderna shots, and possibly more Oxford-AstraZeneca.
That’s enough doses to vaccinate another quarter of the population, or more, by the end of May. Canada’s two biggest provinces announced last week that everyone over the age of 18 will be eligible for a shot by the end of the month.
There were other signs of hope. In Ontario, the government will double down on vaccinations in hard-hit areas, mostly in Greater Toronto, for the next two weeks. In Vancouver, a concerted effort to vaccinate people in the hard-luck Downtown Eastside neighbourhood has dramatically reduced new cases there. And in Toronto, the city will start installing the infrastructure for curb lane patios in anticipation of outdoor dining once again becoming possible.
All of this is beyond welcome. But while Canada is making progress against the pandemic, we have not yet beaten it. There are still many things that could go wrong.
Most notably, the provinces could take their foot off the brake too quickly and repeat their errors of February and March, when they lifted restrictions just as new variants were on the rise.
It is critical that robust public health measures remain for some time. They may even need to be reinforced in places, such as Alberta, where case counts are surging. The rate of infections has a long way to fall, and vaccinations a long way to rise, before we’re ready for a safe and sustainable reopening.
Owing to the danger of new and unknown variants, the necessary measures include strong border screening – stronger than Ottawa is currently enforcing.
As for the provinces, they have to ensure that more shots are being focused on the hottest areas with the highest case counts. They also have to make sure that a shot is as easy as possible to get, so nobody has an excuse to avoid getting one.
That means finding multiple ways to get jabs into arms, from mass clinics to community pop-ups to going straight to people’s doors. It means doing everything to push the first-shot rate to close to 100 per cent of adults.
It also means preparing for the next challenge, which is getting everyone a second shot. April had one last bit of bad news on Friday, with a new British study saying that a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine still leaves people vulnerable to COVID-19 variants.
Canada made progress in April. May can bring a lot more.
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