The U.K. government’s decision to remove most of its public health restrictions, now that most of its population has been fully vaccinated, is “of great interest” to Canada’s top doctor, as health officials continue to gauge how best to return to life as it was before the pandemic.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to “move away from legal restrictions” to prevent COVID’s spread involves reversing mask mandates, business closures, and limits to the number of people at events on July 19.
The U.K. is one of the few countries whose vaccination campaign is ahead of Canada’s. Just over half of all Brits are fully vaccinated against COVID. At the rate shots are being administered in Canada, more than 50 per cent of all Canadians could be fully inoculated in just over a week.
What differentiates the U.K. from other countries that have reopened after vaccinating most of their populations is its plan to repeal restrictions while also experiencing a surge in infections. On Wednesday — and for the first time since late January, during its third and worst wave — more than 30,000 new cases were reported in the country of about 67 million people.
Unlike earlier waves of infection in the U.K., the increase in deaths hasn’t been as steep; while daily case counts have multiplied by 13 since May, the number of deaths per day has only tripled since then.
“We’ll be monitoring quite closely what’s happening globally, but particularly in countries that are highly vaccinated (including the U.K.),” Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Thursday, when asked by iPolitics if the Public Health Agency of Canada was watching the U.K.’s handling of the pandemic.
“Given the U.K. situation, I am particularly interested in whether the cases are now de-linked from severity indicators,” Tam said. “So if you’re only getting cases, but no hospitalizations or deaths, that is an important difference of a vaccinated country, going forward.”
While Canada is on track to reach vaccine coverage that’s as high as the U.K.’s, Tam said one important difference between the countries’ rollouts is that they’ve relied on different vaccines: Most Brits got AstraZeneca’s vaccine, compared to only five per cent of Canadians.
AstraZeneca’s shot is just as effective at preventing someone who’s infected from getting seriously sick, but Pfizer’s and Moderna’s — which most vaccinated Canadians have received — are better at preventing infection in the first place.
While Tam is “hoping (the) disassociation between cases and the severity indicators (such as hospitalizations)” in the U.K. continues, it’s important to keep monitoring the increase in cases — especially if variants like Delta are responsible — to see if hospitalizations pick up. Watching for already vaccinated people getting infected by variants is also important, as more transmissible strains of the virus are “most concerning,” Tam said.
While it would be a “positive sign” if more people don’t get severe cases of COVID, there’s no “magic ratio” of cases to severe outcomes that would make COVID no longer a threat, Tam said. When setting health policy, the Public Health Agency of Canada also has to consider the long-term effects that people with mild or asymptomatic cases of COVID experience.
Scientists around the world are still trying to understand COVID’s long-term effects. According to one study by Swedish researchers that was peer reviewed and published in the journal JAMA, one in 10 people who got a mild case of COVID still had symptoms eight months later. The study also said more research was needed.
Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy public health officer, said Canada’s COVID situation is “looking good.” But even if — as in the U.K. — cases in Canada aren’t as severe, Canada’s health-care system has to be up to the task of treating the severe cases that do occur.
If what’s happening in the U.K. continues — a largely vaccinated population that’s less threatened by COVID, even while people continue to get infected — governments could more confidently switch to more targeted measures to prevent its spread, Tam said.
“Instead of blanket approaches, we should now be switching to a much more targeted, nuanced approach to how we manage this pandemic,” Tam said.
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