We’re almost there, Ontario

OPINION: Yes, we should open cautiously and prudently. But the news is encouraging — we just need to hang in there a few more weeks
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 31, 2021
A person receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-thru clinic in Kingston on May 28. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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The next few weeks will be decisive in Ontario. But the interesting part of that sentence isn’t the “decisive” part. It’s the “few weeks” part. We are no longer in a phase where our milestones and measurements must be in months. We’re down to weeks, or even days.

It’s worth recalling, if only for a minute, that when this all began — when COVID-19 swept the globe — it would have been entirely realistic and conceivable that we were years away from a single effective vaccine. We simply didn’t know. There was hope, and maybe even some cautious expectation, that advances in medical technology might compress the normal timeline for developing and then testing a new vaccine. This is normally a years-long process, and at the very beginning, if you’d told me that it would take us two years to rush a new safe and effective vaccine into service, that would still have seemed like a remarkably fast process. 

Compare that to the historical record: the official recognition that the crisis had reached our province came on March 17, 2020, when Ontario declared a state of emergency. The first Ontarian got her vaccine jab on December 14, 2020. That’s 272 days.

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So, yes, the progress to not just one effective vaccine, but a host of them — we’re using three in Ontario right now, and they all show tremendous efficacy in real-world experience — was astonishing and wonderful. 

And things are going to speed up even more.

For all the fear and frustration we felt early this year, as we watched our allies vaccinate faster (this shouldn’t have surprised us, as I noted elsewhere), the fact remains that we are vaccinating quickly now. The first group of Ontarians to become eligible for their second doses became so Monday — the 80-plus cohort can now book their shots. The 70-plus will be eligible by the middle of June; that’s only 14 days away. I don’t think people realize how fast this is going to pivot. The news is good and getting better.

The plan makes sense, too. This is something we have not always been able to say about Ontario’s pandemic-response efforts. But the plan strikes a smart balance between bridging what I recently described here as the trickiest, most awkward part of the vaccination program — the transition from a mostly first-shots-only phase to a mostly second-shots-only phase.

There are going to be stragglers from the first group for a long time, but if we’d remained narrowly focused on first shots only, we’d have had clinics with more supply than demand and second-dose seekers going home angry and disappointed as clinics and doses went under-utilized. We will probably avoid that now, or at least largely mitigate it.

Or better. This is just a guess, so don’t take it to the bank, but I’m confident we’ll actually beat most of our milestones. If the supply holds out, I suspect we’ll see clinics taking all comers for second shots before the plan officially calls for it, simply because they’ll have the capacity to do so. This happened quite a bit during the first-dose phase — quietly, at first, to avoid backlash, but then more and more openly. Clinics put first doses into willing arms ahead of the approved schedule because, frankly, they could. My arm was one of those: a local clinic put the word out that it had more doses on hand than it could use and was taking all comers. VaxHunters tweeted out the opportunity. I showed up and got my first shot. I expect we’ll see a lot more of this for second doses. And this is terrific.

I am by nature a cautious, conservative guy (using that term in the non-political sense, for our purposes here). I still think we should open cautiously and prudently. Outside of areas with vanishingly low community transmission, I don’t think we should open schools until September. We must remain alert to new variants and closely watch the United Kingdom, where B.1.617 is taking hold. The preliminary numbers from the U.K. are encouraging — deaths and serious illness among double-dosed individuals are very, very low. The vaccines are working. 

But the single-dose efficacy is cause for alarm. This should reinforce to all Canadians, from our top officials right down to the general public, that getting both shots is an urgent imperative. B.1.617 is already here. We are racing the clock.

The race is, though, for the first time since this all began, going well. The news is encouraging on every front. We have the vaccines, and we have the capacity to administer them. The vaccines are working against all known threats. We are developing (slowly, but still) the domestic capacity to make our own vaccines, which will help us combat future variants, should any of them pose a danger of a general, widespread breakthrough. Monday night, there will be fans watching the Leafs in person! (Oh, God, I hope they win.) This would have been inconceivable a few months ago. Hell, it seemed inconceivable Sunday, when the government first rejected the idea. 

We don’t need scientific miracles anymore. We have those already. We don’t need to secure supplies of vaccine. We have those, too. We just need time — days, maybe weeks, to finish the first phase, get a huge head start on the second, and get us in a position where we can truly weather any future storms. 

This will require patience and good judgment. And, yes, sacrifice. But only for a few more weeks. We’re almost there, Ontario. All the necessary stars have aligned. We just need a tiny bit more time to get the actual jabbing done, and we’re doing it every day. Just a bit longer, friends. Weeks, or days, and we’ll be over the top.

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