Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today that hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 shots are set to arrive each week for the foreseeable future — but Canada’s chief public health officer warned that the relative scarcity of vaccines now means people still have to be vigilant about fast-spreading COVID variants.
After convening a call with the premiers last night, Trudeau said the federal government is working with the provinces and territories to make sure they’re ready for an onslaught of shots after weeks of meagre supplies.
“Vaccines are my top priority. I know the premiers feel the same,” Trudeau said. “The big lift we’re going to face, as our vaccine deliveries shift to the millions, means the provinces will need to be ready.”
While vaccine deliveries are stabilizing — thanks in part to firm commitments from Pfizer to deliver more shots than originally planned over the next six months — Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Canada’s supply of vaccines will still be comparatively small over the coming months.
Tam said the provinces and territories must maintain stringent public health measures to keep new, more contagious variants from taking hold.
“For the next few months, we’re not going to have a lot of people vaccinated,” Tam said. “That’s just a fact.”
Canada has roughly 38 million people and just under 1.4 million doses have been administered so far. Fewer than 500,000 Canadians have been fully vaccinated with two doses of either the Moderna or Pfizer products.
The Opposition Conservatives jumped on Tam’s comments in question period today, pressing the government to account for Canada’s slow start to the vaccination campaign.
“Are the Liberals admitting their failure to vaccinate Canadians has made Canada vulnerable to variants and is going to create more lockdowns?” said Michelle Rempel Garner, the party’s health critic, citing Tam’s remarks.
“The government has left us in a tinderbox situation where these variants might lead to more lockdowns, more lives lost and more jobs lost. This is crazy. Will the government admit their failure?”
WATCH: Trudeau cautions provinces about reopening too quickly
In reply, Darren Fisher, parliamentary secretary to the health minister, insisted that Canada is on track to vaccinate everyone who wants a shot by the end of September.
“We’re working the provinces and territories to protect our communities against outbreaks of these new variants,” he said.
Based on current estimates, Canada will have enough doses to fully vaccinate 14.5 million people by the end of June — a number that could tick higher if other promising vaccine candidates are approved by Health Canada.
But those higher vaccination thresholds are still months away and there’s a possibility that the pandemic will “surge rapidly and strongly,” Tam said.
The “variants of concern” are now present in every province, according to the latest data from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Hundreds of cases of the variants — 660 cases of the B117 variant, first discovered in the U.K., 39 cases of the B1351 variant, first identified in South Africa, and one case of the P1 variant, first found in Brazil — have been identified in Canada so far. B1351 has proven to be a vaccine-resistant variety.
With so few people vaccinated, most people haven’t developed herd immunity or antibody protection and cases can easily spike even after a lull, Tam said.
“The population immunity is still probably quite low,” Tam said. “Our vaccination programs continue to escalate but they haven’t got to a point where enough people are protected.”
Tam ‘very optimistic’ about new Pfizer studies
Tam urged provinces and territories to be cautious about dropping public health measures designed to curb the spread of the virus. Trudeau also warned his provincial counterparts against “opening up too fast” now that new COVID-19 strains are abroad.
As Canada contends with a relatively slow pace in vaccinations in the months to come, Tam said new research about the Pfizer product published by Canadian doctors in the New England Journal of Medicine and Israeli scientists in the Lancet could offer some hope.
Dr. Danuta Skowronski of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and Dr. Gaston De Serres from the Institut national de sante publique du Quebec found that a single shot of the Pfizer vaccine might be almost as good as two.
The doctors found that, by waiting two weeks after vaccination to start measuring the rate of new infections, there were 92 per cent fewer COVID-19 cases among those who had received just one dose of the vaccine compared with those who got a placebo.
The doctors said this research could give Canada leeway to push back the second dose and focus on getting that first dose into more people to build herd immunity.
“With such a highly protective first dose, the benefits derived from a scarce supply of vaccine could be maximized by deferring second doses until all priority group members are offered at least one dose,” the doctors wrote in their paper.
“There may be uncertainty about the duration of protection with a single dose, but the administration of a second dose within one month after the first, as recommended, provides little added benefit in the short term, while high-risk persons who could have received a first dose with that vaccine supply are left completely unprotected.”
Reasons to be ‘optimistic’
Similarly, a study of Israeli health care workers published in The Lancet found the first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine to be 85 per cent effective in preventing infection.
Tam said Canadians have reasons to be “very optimistic” about these findings. “There are studies now beginning to emerge both abroad and in Canada that just that initial dose packs quite a punch,” she said.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the findings “could be” a game changer for the country’s immunization campaign. “If the company decides to change its dosing schedule … we would review their data closely,” she said.
WATCH: Tam comments on new study of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine
Canada will continue to recommend that provinces follow through with the two-dose regime, as manufacturers suggest, but Tam said there may come a time when the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) chooses to allow for more time between shots — to “stretch the interval,” as Tam put it — so that more people can get at least one dose sooner.
“It is incredible that we have such an efficacious tool,” Tam said of the Pfizer product. “We just need to hunker down, get the vaccines implemented and people to roll up their sleeves when the time comes.”
B.C. records more than 600 new cases of COVID-19 – News 1130
VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – There are 634 new cases of COVID-19 recorded in this province, bringing the total to 83,107.
B.C. also recorded four more deaths linked to the virus, for a total of 1,380.
BC #covid19 Mar 5
Variants: 4 new confirmed – total 250, 12 active
Vaccine: 311208 doses, +12357 – 86865 2nd doses
Today’s statement says: “the number of new cases remains higher than we want it to be.”
(today BC has highest new cases here since January 7th)#bcpoli @news1130 2/2
— LizaYuzda (@LizaYuzda) March 6, 2021
The numbers, released Friday, came on the heels of B.C.’s top doctor offering hope that people in this province might return to some sense of normalcy by summer.
“Maybe I’m too optimistic, but we’re going to be in our post-pandemic world by the summer, if things continue to go the way that we want them to,” Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday.
On Friday, the province announced four more confirmed cases of variants of concern.
Related article: COVID-19 vaccinations in B.C.: What you need to know
The province says 311,208 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, 86,865 of which are second doses.
Health-care workers, those living and working in long-term care homes, and people living in remote and isolated Indigenous communities have so far been the only ones eligible for the vaccine.
But as of Monday, Indigenous people age 65 and up, and other British Columbians age 90 and up can book an appointment to get a shot.
New B.C. infections well above national average, with one-third likely COVID-19 'long-haulers' – CTV News Vancouver
As British Columbia records its highest single-day case count in two months, the province is second only to Saskatchewan in new infections per capita over the past two weeks. Experts are warning more must be done soon, especially with thousands of people facing long-term symptoms.
On Friday, B.C. health officials announced 634 confirmed cases of COVID-19. A federal infobase shows B.C. infections at a rate of 141 per 100,000 residents when averaged over the past two weeks. Saskatchewan posted 186 per 100,000 residents, while the national average was just 108. And, while the majority of provinces showed a continued decline or flattening of infections, only the westernmost province showed significant growth.
“Obviously what we’re doing in British Columbia is not having the desired effect. We cannot have 650 cases a day and we cannot tolerate it until the vaccine kicks in and produces community-based immunity, we’re weeks and months away from that,” said Dr. Brian Conway, president of the Vancouver Infectious Disease Centre.
“All of this is suggestive of less-controlled, if not uncontrolled, community-based (rather than institutional) spread and this is the part of the pandemic that is of most concern,” Conway said. “If that occurs, then we need to intervene in a way that is different from what we are doing now to control (it).”
Only a handful of long-term care and assisted-living facilities declared outbreaks in February, and there haven’t been any in March so far.
While vaccine availability is ramping up and the number of deaths continues to decline, one of the experts on the front line is warning those numbers tell only part of the story.
Many thousands of “long COVID” cases in B.C.
As the months wear on, more and more people are reporting COVID-19 symptoms that persist well beyond their infectious period. Medical professionals treating them at three specialty clinics in Metro Vancouver say B.C. statistics mirror what other countries are observing.
“We don’t know what the absolute prevalence of the ‘long COVID’ disease is now, but we know from the data 75 per cent of hospitalized patients are having ongoing symptoms at 3 months,” said Dr. Zachary Schwartz, who leads the Post-COVID-19 Recovery Clinic at Vancouver General Hospital.
“For outpatients, probably upwards of 30 per cent of people can be still symptomatic at 6 months or 9 months after their infection.”
There isn’t a definition yet of what would qualify someone as a “long-hauler.” Symptoms can be mild to severe and range from tightness or pain in the chest to coughing and trouble breathing. Concussion-like symptoms – such as brain fog and fatigue – and mental health problems have also been reported.
“We do have psychiatrists involved in our networks that are seeing individuals relatively rapidly because we’re seeing both a new onset of mental health disorders like PTSD, anxiety, depression and – in people who have previously been diagnosed – we’re definitely seeing decompensation in some of their mental health as well,” he said.
In Surrey, they’ve only seen 18 patients at the Post-COVID-19 Recovery Clinic at Jim Pattison Outpatient and Surgery Centre, which opened Jan. 8.
A total of 130 patients have been accepted at VGH, where applications are now open for referrals.
St. Paul’s Hospital has provided the lion’s share of the treatment, with 328 seen by doctors. Providence Health says the hospital is “building capacity both virtually and actually.”
With limited space, patients need a referral for treatment and the facilities are currently only accepting the most severe long-haulers. For those with mild to moderate symptoms, they’re increasingly providing online resources for them to manage their symptoms.
Warnings from doctors as complacency becomes more common
As the weather warms up and pandemic fatigue has people desperate for company, Conway believes more targeted restrictions may be needed to avoid disaster.
“I’m hoping it’ll be the Whistler approach,” he said, noting that targeted business closures, emphasizing household bubbles and some changes to living situations slashed transmissions by 75 per cent in a month.
“My sense is, what’s going on in Surrey and the surrounding areas in the Fraser Valley is community-based transmission is occurring, so either it’s living situations that need to be changed or people are making decisions in their day-to-day lives that ‘this one time, this one evening, it’s OK to not follow the rules.’”
Conway praised public health officials in other provinces who moderated restrictions based on infections and allowed communities with few cases to carry on, while hotspots in Toronto and Montreal saw crackdowns that brought transmission under control.
“Broad restrictions (in B.C.) are probably not appropriate and people wouldn’t necessarily follow them anyway, they would be resistant, so I think a targeted approach is where we need to pay attention,” he suggested.
With 76,752 people who tested positive for the disease have now classified as “recovered,” Schwartz said it may be more accurate to call them “recovered from acute disease” or “no longer contagious,” since a third of them could still be experiencing symptoms; that’s roughly 25,000 people who could be feeling a faint tightness in the chest, or struggling to get out of bed.
“You don’t want to end up with these symptoms long-term because they’re debilitating … people who cannot get back to school full time, people who cannot get back to work full time,” he said, noting that aside from the personal and family toll that’s taking, it’ll increasingly have an impact on our economy and health-care system.
“When you apply that to a population health level, when you apply that to 500 cases a day just to British Columbia, it starts becoming significant,” Schwartz said.
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