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People wait in line at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

On Tuesday, the day after Ontario and Quebec gingerly took their latest steps toward an eventual return to normalcy, Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table released new modelling that had a blunt message: We can’t be sure how this is going to go.

What is certain, the science table said, is that letting non-essential indoor businesses such as restaurants, bars, cinemas, casinos, museums and gyms start up again at half capacity, and raising the limit on retail capacity and private indoor gatherings, will increase COVID-19 infections in the province.

What’s not clear is how big the rebound will be. The province cut back on testing for asymptomatic people in December, so it has a less-than-perfect picture of how many residents have been infected by Omicron.

The science table said some available indicators, such as the amount of COVID-19 found in waste water, a steady decrease in test positivity rates, and the drop in hospitalizations in Ontario, which is similar to what is being seen in many other provinces, are promising. But with hospitalizations still at an all-time high, there is no way to know exactly how the next few weeks will play out.

Oh wait. There is something we do know: Vaccination is our best defence against a strong rebound in hospitalizations in the coming weeks. It is still our silver bullet.

There are entire convoys of evidence that demonstrate the effectiveness of vaccines against COVID-19. For example, look at what happened in long-term care homes in Canada before and after vaccines arrived.

It became clear in early 2020 that LTC residents were extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. By May, they accounted for a shocking 81 per cent of Canada’s reported COVID-19 deaths.

The carnage prompted provinces to prioritize LTC residents for the first available vaccines. Between Jan. 15 and March 31, 2021, 95 per cent of residents in most provinces got their first dose, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Deaths in LTC homes plummeted in the following months. By last summer, the death rate from all causes in long-term care was no different than what would be seen in a normal, non-pandemic year, CIHI says.

Want more evidence? In the United States, a low vaccination rate of 64 per cent of the population – a full 15 points lower than Canada – is being blamed for a per-capita death rate that is three times higher than Canada’s, and 63 per cent higher than any wealthy developed nation.

Or look at the truckloads of data from every province that prove that vaccinated Canadians have consistently been far less likely to fall seriously ill with COVID-19 than unvaccinated ones.

In Ontario, according to the science table, being unvaccinated means you are currently almost six times more likely to be hospitalized, and almost 12 times more likely to wind up in the ICU, than a person who has received two or three doses. Quebec’s figures are almost exactly the same.

What this comes down to is simple: If you’re anxious to see the end of restrictions and mandates but you’re unvaccinated, you’re going about it the wrong way.

And if governments in the process of relaxing the rules don’t want to have to reverse themselves in a few months, they need to reach out to laggards and get them on board.

Canada’s vaccination rate is stalling out. The booster campaign that started in December peaked at an average of almost 350,000 doses a day in early January, but it has steadily plunged since then, recently averaging fewer than 150,000 daily shots, according to the COVID-19 Tracker website.

As such, vaccine mandates and proof-of-vaccine requirements remain vital tools, and largely shouldn’t be phased out. But governments preparing to lift restrictions can’t just sit and wait for the holdouts to step forward. They need to go to where the holdouts are.

In Quebec, community workers this month are fanning out in areas of Montreal where vaccination rates are low, and talking to people directly.

These kinds of ground-level efforts, including pop-up clinics in busy public places such as shopping malls and transit stations, should be relentlessly rolled out by the provinces and municipalities in the coming months.

Vaccination passports and mandates have been critical in the fight against COVID-19, but more than ever, those nudges need to be accompanied by an extended hand.

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