Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout is reaching hundreds of thousands of people per day, inching the country closer to a return to normalcy.
But experts say not to expect everyday life to change too soon.
While the vaccines have shown exceptional effectiveness after one dose, public health authorities still urge people to stick to safety measures, regardless of vaccination status.
With several provinces battling high levels of community transmission and roughly two-thirds of the population still unvaccinated, most experts agree it’s too soon to change guidelines for vaccinated individuals.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t start preparing our next steps.
“If you got your first dose, it’s reasonable a month later to think: Can I see my grandkids? Especially if you’re 85-years-old and haven’t seen them in a year,” says Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease expert in Mississauga, Ont.
While Chakrabarti says it’s not time to offer full concessions to partially vaccinated Canadians, he worries what might happen if people tire of waiting for official guidance.
Some will gather together regardless, he says, “so having a framework of what’s safe will help.”
In some households where only one member is vaccinated, confusion has already crept in.
Toronto educator Jess Frias received her first dose 10 days ago, but her husband is still waiting for his jab. While the vaccine gave Frias “peace of mind,” she doesn’t feel comfortable socializing until her friends and family get their shots.
Still, she’d like to know what’s allowed and what isn’t.
“It would be nice to give people some guidelines and I think it would be an incentive for some people (to get vaccinated),” she says. “I know there’s people that are like: ‘Why would I get the vaccine right now? It doesn’t change anything.’”
The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals Tuesday, complete with a colour-coded graphic showing activities that are safe for either group – like going for a walk outside – and ones that still require masking regardless of vaccination status, like attending a full-capacity worship service.
Samantha Yammine, a neuroscientist and science communicator, says things are different in Canada, where second doses of the two-dose vaccines are delayed by up to four months.
Yammine says spreading out a limited vaccine supply meant more people get partial protection — but it also means fewer fully-vaccinated individuals than our southern neighbours.
Studies show the first dose offers around 80 per cent protection against severe COVID illness and death one month after getting the shot.
Yammine says having a majority of people protected by one dose will “get us out of crisis mode” and relieve pressure on hospitals.
But, she adds restrictions aren’t likely to lift until more people have their second dose, which pushes protection past 90 per cent.
“This is where I think Canadians are going to be really frustrated for the next few months,” Yammine says. “We’ve all had to be so patient, and it’s been a very hard year. But we are so close to the end.
“Our first dose, that’s going to help us end this third wave and hopefully avoid future waves. … (but) for the positive parts to come, where we can start hanging out in a more regular way again, that might take longer.”
Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said Friday that restrictions could start to lift this summer if 75 per cent of Canadians have their first dose and 20 per cent have their second by then.
Yammine expects clear guidelines to come soon from public health communicators, especially as family events like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day approach.
While some Canadians may think it’s safe to visit vaccinated parents, she says risk is higher when COVID is circulating heavily in the community.
“There’s a really high effectiveness (with) the first dose, and that’s amazing, but you could still get COVID with symptoms, you could still pass it on,” Yammine says. “And so we’re not quite out of the woods yet.”
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease expert with the University of Alberta, says she has no problem waiting for definitive guidance on what vaccinated people can and can’t do.
While some studies suggest the vaccines also decrease the likelihood of spreading the virus, Saxinger says there’s still “not a lot of good evidence in that arena.”
She expects that’s the main reason public health officials urge caution. But having the same rules for everyone also fosters “community cohesion,” she says. And it recognizes the inequity of the rollout, where some people who deserve a vaccine haven’t been able to get one yet.
“If people who’ve been vaccinated get a get-out-of-jail-free card for gatherings and masks and absolutely everything in public life, that is really unfair to those who haven’t had a chance to get vaccinated,” she says.
Kelly Grindrod, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy, says that with more than 11 million people now partially vaccinated, it might be time for some semblance of “transitional advice for this in-between phase.”
She expects that to still include masking, limiting contacts and properly distancing for vaccinated people, at least until we decrease community spread.
Grindrod, who helps run a vaccine clinic in Waterloo, Ont., says we can hasten that process by taking the first vaccine available to us.
“If you can get your first dose now and your second dose in the summer, that dramatically increases the chance we’ll have less restrictions by then.”
Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press