Over the past four months, Alberta has seen more than 6,700 people hospitalized with COVID-19. But in a pattern repeated across Canada and around the world, the burden of illness has not fallen equally on all residents. No. The virus has been very discriminating.
There’s an idea out there, among a small but loud minority who think that they alone are fed up with COVID-19, that the best way to get beyond the pandemic is not through actions, such as vaccinations, that reduce the pandemic’s dangers. Because, goes the theory, vaccines don’t work. Or they’re overemphasized. Or they’re a get-rich scheme for Big Pharma.
Instead of recognizing how much vaccination has reduced hospitalization and death, and how much of the relative mildness of Omicron is because so many Canadians are vaccinated, they argue the fact the Omicron wave shows signs of abating proves vaccinations were and are unnecessary. Problem solved, no thanks to science.
So let’s consider the evidence, from one province. We use Alberta because it has extremely detailed data and the tale they tell is hard to deny. All calculations below are based on data for the four months ended Jan. 25.
Nearly 86 per cent of Alberta teens and adults have had two or more doses of vaccine, yet six out of 10 Albertans hospitalized with COVID-19 have been unvaccinated. The unvaccinated have been hospitalized at a rate 5.4 times that of the double-vaccinated and 11.2 times higher than the triple-vaccinated.
The disparity is even starker in intensive care. Again, nearly nine out of 10 Alberta teens and adults are vaccinated, but in the province’s ICUs, 78 per cent of the COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. Compared with an Albertan with two shots, the unvaccinated are 12.2 times more likely to end up in the ICU. Compared with someone with a booster shot, the odds of an ICU visit are 41.6 times worse.
Drill down further and the gap only becomes wider.
For Albertans in their 50s, the rate of ICU admission is 25 times higher for the unvaccinated than the double vaccinated, and 71 times higher than the triple vaccinated. For those in their 60s, the rates are 22 times and 394 times higher, respectively.
And fully 85 per cent of vaccinated Albertans who ended up in the ICU over the past four months had pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, cancer or autoimmune conditions. In contrast, 36 per cent of the unvaccinated had no pre-existing condition.
It’s the same story across the country. The province of Quebec calculates the unvaccinated are 5.7 times as likely to be hospitalized and 11.5 times as likely to be admitted to the ICU. Ontario’s advisory science table on Thursday gave almost the same odds: a 5.8-times higher risk of hospitalization, and a 12-times greater risk of being in the ICU.
Some people, especially those who are young or middle-aged and relatively healthy, think the dangers from COVID-19 are low, so there’s no point in getting vaccinated. And it is true that most unvaccinated people who catch the virus are not going to die or be hospitalized.
Then again, one could say the same thing about lots of risky activities. Get in a car with a drunk driver, and it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to end up in the hospital. But your odds of injury or death are considerably higher than if you’re driving sober. Vaccination is like that, and then some: It greatly lowers the risk of illness and death, while going unvaccinated greatly increases the risks.
Reasonable people can disagree about the degree to which vaccination mandates and passports should be used to spur a higher vaccination rate. We can debate how much Canada should use persuasion versus compulsion to get the vaccination rate up; this page has long argued we need a lot of the former, and also quite a bit of the latter.
But there’s no arguing vaccines have greatly reduced the number of Canadians hospitalized and saved lives. It’s not a coincidence that the United States, with a vaccination rate 15 percentage points lower than Canada’s, has a pandemic death rate that’s three times higher.
After Omicron, nature may yet throw us more viral curve balls. Tomorrow never knows. But right now, although COVID-19 remains a pandemic for the unvaccinated, it appears to have been rendered endemic for the vaccinated. Vaccines, not wishes, did that.
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