Sometimes the fix for a problem can be so mundane and obvious that it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for it. Front tire looking squishy? Pump it up. Roof looking a little mossy? Replace those shingles. A highly contagious subvariant of a novel coronavirus running amok? Get boosted. And put on a mask.
Boring. But then you’re halfway across a bridge and the front tire goes flat. Or a spring rain comes along and suddenly there’s a water feature in your living room.
Or you’re unboosted or unvaccinated, you catch COVID-19, and it’s serious enough that you become one of the small but rising number of Canadians in hospital.
Looking away from a glaring problem and hoping it will somehow just take care of itself is never the wise option. But that seems to define the headspace that Canadians and their governments are in, 25 months into the pandemic. And that’s a problem.
On Tuesday, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization said provinces should urgently begin the “rapid deployment” of fourth shots to anyone over the age of 80, and to long-term care residents. It also recommended a fourth shot for people aged 70 and up.
NACI’s recommendations are somewhat belated. Ontario implemented fourth shots for people in LTC in January. And on Wednesday, it said anyone over 60 is eligible for a fourth shot. Quebec and British Columbia have also expanded fourth-shot eligibility beyond NACI’s recommendation.
Still, NACI’s latest guidance is a welcome alarm bell going off just as Canada enters a pandemic wave that governments seem to have developed an aversion to even talking about.
This resurgence in cases was “expected,” as Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday – the direct result of her province and others lifting indoor capacity limits and mask and passport mandates in March, just as the highly infectious Omicron subvariant B.A.2 was rising to dominance in Canada.
Ms. Elliott also said her government won’t bring back indoor mask mandates, and that “people want to carry on with their lives.”
The thing is, the number of people in the province hospitalized with COVID jumped to 1,074 on Wednesday, from 778 a week earlier. In Quebec and PEI this week, rising case counts prompted governments to extend indoor mask mandates to the end of April.
Under the circumstances, these moves seem prudent. Wastewater data from Ontario suggests there is more COVID-19 circulating today than at the peak of the Omicron wave more than three months ago. What followed that earlier rise in infections? A sharp rise in hospitalizations.
We know what’s coming, but we also know how to minimize it: Get older people boosted, and try to persuade the unvaccinated to their first shots.
The Omicron surge prompted NACI in December to strongly recommend that anyone over 50 get a third shot; people over 18 were advised to get one, too.
But less than 48 per cent of Canadians eligible for a first booster have bothered to get one. In Ontario, where fourth shots for those over 60 are now available, almost a quarter of people in their 60s never got shot No. 3.
And while Canada’s vaccination rate is 15 points higher than in the United States, there are still millions of adults and older kids who’ve never had a single shot.
The warning signs are impossible to miss – in the rising numbers of cases and hospitalizations; in the lagging booster numbers; in the fact that you probably now know someone infected with COVID-19 for the first time in the pandemic.
The solutions are just as obvious.
There are two ways for Canada to “live with COVID.” We can simply live with more hospitalizations, more deaths, and more cancellations of elective surgeries over the coming weeks. Just let it happen.
Or governments can roll out aggressive campaigns to get third and fourth shots into arms, and to reach out to those who have never had so much as a first shot. Both moves would greatly reduce hospitalizations.
And following the lead of Quebec and PEI, they can also bring back mask mandates for a few weeks, to slow the spread of infection.
It’s all so basic and boring. But no one ever regrets taking small steps now to prevent the worst from happening later.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect percentage of third doses for one age group. This version has been corrected.
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