The protracted saga of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout has had two major plot twists – and counting.
The first was the news that Pfizer and Moderna, the only companies whose vaccines are approved in Canada so far, would be drastically reducing deliveries in January and February.
The second is the spread of worrisome novel coronavirus variants, which are more contagious than the original virus.
These unhappy surprises may not be the last. But as things stand now, Canadians should think of each day as bringing the country one day closer to the end of the pandemic. That’s because every day brings the arrival of growing numbers of vaccine doses. By the end of June, according to Ottawa’s schedule of deliveries, at least one-third of the population will have been fully vaccinated.
All that’s required is for Canadians to stay the course for a while longer, to give more vaccines the time to arrive. It’s a message that needs to be heard by some provincial leaders.
This is not the moment to reopen non-essential businesses, even though Quebec and Ontario – the provinces that continue to see the most new cases, deaths and hospitalizations per day – are impetuously doing just that in many regions.
This is out-of-date thinking. When the pandemic first struck last March and the country went into lockdown, it was always assumed that the most severe restrictions – business and school closures – would be lifted once the curve of new cases was flattened. We’d still have to wear masks, and non-essential travel might remain limited, but eating in restaurants, throwing dinner parties, playing in the schoolyard and shopping in non-essential stores would return.
Some places, namely Atlantic Canada, did crush the virus and were able to largely reopen, safely. The rest of the country lived a different story. A summer reprieve from restrictions helped lead to a second wave in the fall, which was further exacerbated in many places by an unwise easing of restrictions before Christmas. In January, Quebec had to impose a nighttime curfew to battle a massive spike in cases, while Ontario implemented a stay-at-home order and postponed the return to school.
And now both provinces are easing off the brakes because case counts are dropping. But last fall’s experience suggests that even a slight reopening, when case counts are still so high, risks torquing the curve of new infections. Add the new, highly contagious variants into the mix, and you have the ingredients for a very bad third wave.
Public-health officials in hard-hit Ontario regions like Toronto and Peel are pleading with the province to keep current restrictions in place. Patience, for a few more weeks, is the wisest option this time. The reason is vaccines.
The federal government said Thursday that there will be enough Pfizer and Moderna supply to fully inoculate at least 38 per cent of Canadians by the end of June – a figure that could rise as high as 68 per cent if and when other vaccines are approved by Health Canada.
And by the end of March, there are expected to be enough doses to fully vaccinate three million of the most vulnerable Canadians, which should cause COVID-19 deaths to begin a prolonged spiral downwards.
Barring any further plot twists, we are about to move beyond the dire days of last year, when shutting down the economy to stop the pandemic was the only choice.
Now the story is that the cavalry is coming. But they’re not here yet. That’s why loosening up today just to lock back down tomorrow, with a spike in cases and deaths in between, makes no sense.
If Canadians need anything at this point, it’s predictability. Yes, the unemployment rate is too high, especially in Ontario and Quebec, where 251,000 people were thrown out of work by January’s lockdowns. But what good would it do to let some of them return to work only to have to send them back home soon after because of the dangerous variants spreading rapidly?
It will be much more effective to ride out the remainder of winter with the current limits on interactions, bring case numbers down further, let vaccination numbers rise higher – and then begin an enduring reopening. A few more weeks of all this may feel like an eternity, but the vaccines mean that soon it will be us, and the not the virus, writing the script.
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