The next challenge: getting the final 10 per cent of Ontarians dosed

OPINION: The vast majority of eligible people have now had a first shot. But our best hope of a normal fall depends on finding and immunizing more
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 09, 2021
In Ontario, 77 per cent of eligible people have received a first dose. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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If you weren’t watching the press conference, you might have missed a pretty extraordinary statement from federal health officials on Thursday morning: Canada now has so many vaccine doses coming in, and is so rapidly running out of people in need of their first or second doses, that it’s started to manage its vaccine inventory with an eye toward longer-term storage and a more controlled flow to the provinces. This is a pretty noteworthy contrast to the vaccine-management philosophy of the past several months, which amounted to shovelling doses out the door to the provinces as quickly as possible.

The reason for the change is simple enough: the biggest part of the job of vaccinating as many Canadians as possible is going to be ending in the next few weeks, and the country (and provinces) are going to have to pivot to work that will be more difficult but no less important. The vaccine drive so far has been an incredible success: 77 per cent of eligible Ontarians have received a first dose. Just a hair under half of Ontarians 12 and over are double-dosed, and, by the end of the month, it seems very likely that number will similarly be above 70 per cent.

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It's a massive accomplishment, but if you’ve noticed a distinct lack of champagne corks popping among Ontario’s public-health officers, that’s because they’re worried that none of this will be enough in the face of the Delta variant, especially given the lower numbers of young people getting immunized at the moment.

“They are the most social; they’re the most able to propagate the virus back into communities,” Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer, said Tuesday. “We watch what’s going on in England — that unimmunized population is the most susceptible to the virus. So the clock is ticking. We only have eight, nine weeks before schools, colleges reopen, and we want those areas of our communities to reopen as safely as possible.”

It’s not like there’s a lot of daylight between Moore and the minister of health, Christine Elliott, either. Elliott told reporters Wednesday that the province needs to proceed cautiously, and it’s not even clear right now what will follow Step 3 in the province’s reopening.

So the goal is to get Ontario’s numbers of vaccinated people well above the 80 per cent or so we seem to be cruising toward and then get them … as high as they can go. Pollsters like Ekos and Angus Reid both have surveys suggesting that 10 per cent of Canadians or less are outright unwilling to get a vaccine, so 90 per cent, at minimum, seems a goal worth pushing for.

The good news is that, if you’ve been holding off on getting a vaccine because it’s seemed difficult or stressful — or there were any number of other barriers for you personally — it’s going to get much easier in the very near future. Some of this will come thanks to changes in strategy, such as the ones announced by the province Thursday and already underway in public-health units around the province. But, more fundamentally, all those changes have been made possible by the milestone we started this column with: for the first time since the pandemic began, vaccine supply is starting to outrun vaccine demand.

As good as the news is, it’s still important to note that Ontario is leaving some tools unused in its drive to bring up vaccination numbers. I’ve written about financial incentives to get people vaccinated before and won’t repeat myself, except to say that the province isn’t interested in going that route.

What’s more concerning is that the province also isn’t interested in adding any disincentives to staying unvaccinated: it could, for example, introduce a verifiable proof of vaccination to control access to things like restaurants and movie theatres or other non-essential indoor spaces. The province of Quebec announced Thursday that, starting in September, residents may need to prove their vaccination status to access some venues. On our other provincial border, Manitoba has already rolled out vaccine identification, but for now Ontario isn’t interested in following that path.

“The fact that 83 per cent of people [between May 15 and June 12] who ended up in hospital were not vaccinated, I think, is incentive enough for people to move forward to protect yourself, to protect your loved ones,” Elliott said Thursday.

Except, of course, people are still people, and it’s obvious that, even in contexts where people are most vulnerable to COVID-19, non-trivial numbers of people aren’t choosing to get vaccinated. The government knows this, which is why it mandated that long-term-care workers have both doses by July 1. Of course, that policy lacks any real teeth, so it’s not a surprise that outbreaks — such as the one at a Burlington LTC home, which took a life — are still possible. Ontario’s current policies may get us where we need to go, or they may not, but they amount to gambling on the fact that the general population needs even less of a nudge than LTC staff.

It may pay off. And the combination of current policies and more efforts to make it as easy as possible to get first doses into new arms may pay off — 90 per cent of people with at least one dose before September seems like a plausible next goal after we enter Step 3 later this month. But remember what the stakes are, as laid out by Moore: it’s a question of how safe our schools, colleges, and universities will be when the fall comes.

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