On June 26, the Netherlands lifted most of its public-health restrictions, allowing restaurants, bars and nightclubs to fully reopen. The pandemic was over, apparently.
By early July, however, the number of COVID-19 infections had jumped sixfold. “What we thought would be possible, turned out not to be possible in practice,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Monday, as he rolled everything back. “We had poor judgment, which we regret and for which we apologize.”
From Europe to the United States, the world is in the midst of a series of real-time pandemic experiments. They have three lessons for Canada.
First lesson: Removing too many public-health restrictions, too soon, risks being regretted. Second lesson: The main guide for deciding how few public restrictions are needed is the vaccination level. Third lesson: Even Canada’s relatively high vaccination level is still too low.
In Britain, with a vaccination rate that rivals Canada’s, the number of people with COVID-19 has more than quadrupled since the end of May. Nevada, with a slightly larger population than Greater Vancouver, now has more people in hospital than all of Canada.
And Yukon, the most vaccinated part of this country, has spent the past several weeks wrestling its biggest outbreak ever, which at one point was the worst in North America.
We know everyone is fed up with COVID-19. Canadians are done with it. It’s just that it’s not quite done with us.
Fortunately, we have tools to deal with it. We have a host of well-known measures: some easy, like masking; some costly and destructive, like shutdowns and lockdowns.
And we have vaccines.
As France’s Health Minister put it this week, as bluntly as a Parisian waiter describing the table d’hôte menu, you can have lockdown, or you can have vaccination.
The recent surges demonstrate just how powerful vaccines are – in the U.S. in May, 99 per cent of deaths and hospitalizations were among the unvaccinated. But the surges also show how dangerous the variants are for the unvaccinated.
Vaccines subtract from the virus, but variants multiply the remainder.
The bottom line is that, the higher our vaccination level, the fewer and weaker public-health measures will likely need to be. But the lower the vaccination level, the more onerous those measures will have to be.
Think of every unvaccinated person as a debit against our public-health account. They’re imposing risks on themselves, but also costs on all of us. That’s why the question of when and where you can be unvaccinated can and should be regulated, just like smoking, or firearms.
Provincial governments should make it law that anyone who works in health care, or long-term care, or retirement homes, or other caring professions, must be vaccinated against COVID-19. Ditto for public servants such as police and firefighters.
The same should go for university and college faculty, staff and students, and for students 12 years of age and up, and their teachers.
And there are many other congregate workplaces – from warehouses to bars – where vaccination should be a condition of employment. It’s up to provinces to lay out the rules.
Ontario has long made basic vaccinations mandatory for paramedics, while children in Ontario have to get a host of vaccines to attend school. It’s time to add COVID-19 to the list, nationwide.
Canada’s vaccination campaign is racing ahead when it comes to second doses, and is likely to end July with more than 70 per cent of Canadians over 12 having received two shots. That’s good news, though not good enough. The first shot level – the precondition for second shots – is barely rising. It’s at just more than 78 per cent, and far lower in some provinces and advancing by less than a percentage point a week. We need to aim for 90 per cent or higher.
Canada has been given a summer reprieve. But as Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health put it this week, “I absolutely expect a rise in COVID activity in September.”
That could be a minor speed bump with little impact on businesses, the economy and hospitals. Or, if we fail to raise vaccination rates, it can be something less pleasant. That’s what’s on the menu.
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