Dr. Mustafa Hirji
Niagara Acting Medical Officer of Health
This month marks one year since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared and upended our lives. And we have successfully saved hundreds if not thousands of lives in Niagara thanks to our shared sacrifices. However, as we grow exhausted of these constraints in our lives, the virus has not gotten tired, and is actually surging for a third time, having mutated into variants that spread even more easily.
This month also marks the scaling-up of Canada’s vaccination program. Beginning this week, Canada’s shipments of COVID-19 vaccine are increasing several fold, enabling the launch of large clinics by Niagara Region Public Health and the opening of vaccination to the general public on an age-based sequence: those oldest are being vaccinated first, and progressively younger ages will get their opportunity soon.
At this one-year mark in the pandemic then, we find ourselves faced with both a threat and an opportunity: a renewed surge of infection that could lead to many more hospitalized and potentially passing away, and a pathway to better days through vaccination. The next two months will determine which of these will win.
The threat of the virus should not be underestimated. COVID-19 cases in Niagara are back to the levels we saw at the start of the second wave in late December. While we have not yet seen a surge of people hospitalized or needing intensive care, other parts of the province are not so lucky: Sunnybrook Hospital is building a temporary field hospital to house the surge of patients; Hamilton Health Science has begun preparatory work to do the same; Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington and London Health Sciences continue to have their field hospitals ready after establishing them in January for the second wave. Our hospitals see what is coming and are bracing for it. If these field hospitals start to fill up, though, a third lockdown will likely become necessary.
On the vaccination front, we see over half of the 80-and-older population already vaccinated. With almost all others already registered for their shot in Niagara, those 75-79 years of age are now invited to book appointments as well. As we keep vaccinating younger and younger age cohorts, the vaccines will hold infections down and render field hospitals unnecessary.
But we need to get to that point first—when a much larger proportion of our population has been vaccinated. As we get closer to that point, we will also get closer to summer where heat, humidity, and outdoor living will also give us a big assist against COVID-19.
I therefore believe that, as long as we hold COVID-19 back, in two months we could return to something that closely resembles last summer: the reopening of much of society and resumption of many of our routines. Some less onerous preventive measures will continue for a time (e.g., keeping distance, wearing masks), but will eventually fade away as well once more progress is made with vaccination. Nonetheless, by late May, we will be past a point when many businesses must remain closed, our elderly neighbours must hide indoors for fear of the virus, and our children can’t enjoy normal schooling.
If, instead, the virus wins over these next two months, we will see our hospitals overwhelmed, many more in our community pass away, and when we get to late May, we could be still be at the peak of a third wave, delaying the chance to start returning to normal.
We need to play our part to keep this pandemic under control for just a little longer.
First and foremost, we need to find the resolve again to limit our social contacts to just our immediate household and one or two exceptions to support someone else, or receive support ourselves. This is hard after a year of curtailing our lives. But I hope we can find the motivation to do so for just a couple more months—we can see the light very soon.
Second, if and when our turn comes to get vaccinated, we should seize it. Vaccination is our path out of this pandemic, but vaccination only works when everyone gets it. In particular, since vaccines are not yet approved for children under 16 years of age, we need to get vaccinated ourselves to create a circle of protection around our children.
We are blessed to have four excellent vaccines approved in Canada. While there was some recent concern around the effectiveness of AstraZeneca vaccine in the elderly, and its safety, the latest research largely puts those concerns to bed. In particular, in the UK where 11 million people have received the vaccine, it is working very well for the elderly, and we are not seeing serious side-effects.
And third, recognizing how hard the pandemic continues to be for some in our community, let’s all continue to support them through these last couple months of hardship. In particular, let’s help each other keep our motivation up for this last push.
When I compare Niagara to other parts of the world, we have weathered COVID-19 better than our peers in the US and Europe with far fewer deaths. That is thanks in large part to our resolve over this past year, and our maintaining unity—we are all “in this together.”
Having come so far, as long as we don’t lose our nerve now at this final critical point, I’m confident that we will all be at better days very soon. ◆