The case for COVID-19 optimism this summer

OPINION: With a bit more patience — but less than you may assume — we can make sure the third wave is well and truly the last one
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 18, 2021
People use physical-distancing circles at Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park on May 13, 2021. (Cole Burston/CP)

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Let’s start with a bit of a clunky riddle: What do you call COVID-19 if it doesn’t make you sick at all or if it does make you sick but is massively less likely to put you in the hospital or kill you, and you’re almost guaranteed to make a full recovery?

The answer is: call it whatever you want, because it’s not really the government’s business anymore.

That’s a bit glib, but only a little: this is the world that vaccines are going to give us. The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19, whatever you want to call it, is eventually going to be just another disease, and substantially less dangerous than some, such as the measles, that we think of as having been made largely irrelevant by medical science. And when that happens — indeed, probably before — the public-health measures we’ve endured for more than a year now will come to an end.

It's already happening in such places as the United States, Israel, and the United Kingdom, which got an earlier start on high-volume vaccinations. But Canada (and Ontario) is making up for lost time now and will get there soon. It is still a global pandemic, which means, by definition, it’s not over here until it’s over everywhere, but that’s going to be a project of more than the next year and one that depends on the vagaries of global vaccine supply and the effectiveness of different competing products. Here in Ontario, the more important point is that, with a bit more patience — but less than you might assume — we can make sure the third wave is well and truly the last one.

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An important starting point is that, notwithstanding some badly muddled communications about vaccine safety and effectiveness, Canadians generally are showing extremely high rates of vaccine enthusiasm; roughly 90 per cent of people in Ontario say they want to get their shots, and that number isn’t much lower elsewhere in the country. It would have been useless to have millions of doses if nobody wanted to take them, but the good news is that we seem to have both a willing population and a huge upcoming supply of vaccines.

Add the two together, and things start to look really promising for July and August: by Canada Day, a very large majority of people 12 and older will have gotten their first shot. Before long, we’ll be administering second shots to the oldest age cohorts and some health-care workers, those who’ve waited longest since getting their first shots, and we’ll very likely work our way down the age ladder once again, but much, much faster this time.

The Globe and Mail has done the math here, and I won’t duplicate its work: even excluding doses of the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, we’ll have enough to give all Canadians two doses by the end of July. The fact that Health Canada has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — but only that one, so far — for use in people 12 and older adds to the urgent need for clarity about the future use of both the AZ and JJ vaccines: every Pfizer dose that goes into the arm of someone who could safely have received a second dose of AZ or of someone who could have received the JJ one-dose vaccine instead means that an adolescent who could have been protected, wasn’t.

One point that people seem to be confused about and bears clarifying: nobody in the Ontario government seems to seriously be proposing that people will have to wait the full 16 weeks between their first and second doses once vaccine supply has increased. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said as much on Monday at Queen’s Park. “As we go forward … as we get lots of vaccine supply, we’re not going to leave it in fridges,” he said. “If we think we can go on to second doses with people, we certainly will. We won’t wait for the four months.”

Translation: if the vaccines are here, they’re going to get used as quickly as is safely possible. If you get your first shot in June, you are not going to have to wait until October to get your second shot.

What this means for the virus that is still infecting thousands of new people in Ontario every day is another question. But the province’s case counts will likely fall farther in the near future, if the experience of other countries is any guide: we’re currently reporting twice as many new cases per capita as the U.S., five times as many as the U.K., and 30 times as many as Israel. (On Tuesday morning, Ontario posted its lowest number of new cases since March, and the numbers in Peel and Toronto, in particular, are falling rapidly.) Some of the decline, undoubtedly, is the work of the stay-at-home order and the closure of Ontario’s schools. But the combination of public-health measures and high rates of vaccination can give us confidence that, as we wrestle the virus back down again, it will stay down this time.

The experience of other countries also suggests we don’t need to wait until the last willing person gets their second shot to start reopening. Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Health Christine Elliott have signalled that some things might start reopening even before the expiry of the stay-at-home order on June 2; even simply reopening more outdoor amenities would be a start. But we need to begin getting used to the idea that lots of indoor activities are going to be safe again before very long, too, both because of vaccinations and because of low overall levels of infection.

We’re not yet at the point where people can afford to be complacent, but that day is coming, and sooner than you might think. And complacency isn’t a bad thing, if it means that people will get to go back to living their normal lives again. Indeed, it’s the entire point of everything we’ve gone through in the past year. People should get ready to enjoy their summer.

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