Another major milestone on the road back to normal was reached this week as vaccination began for the 5 to 11 age group, just as news of a new variant renewed fears that our pandemic journey is far from over.
Identification of the variant, Omicron, first spotted in South Africa, immediately prompted countries, including Canada, to ban foreign travellers from several southern African countries and drove an abrupt drop in global stock markets. The variant is thought to include multiple mutations in the virus's spike protein, which may make it both more transmissible and perhaps better able to evade immunity. No cases have been identified in Canada.
Meanwhile, the positive response to children's vaccines means greater community protection against the virus in coming weeks, as does the availability of third "booster" shots for those most at risk as immunity wanes from earlier doses.
Although the 5-11 age group is much less likely to get seriously sick from COVID, a small number have been (300 hospitalized in Canada, with a handful in ICU), and children can readily spread the virus to more vulnerable family members. Vaccination is also a vital component of keeping schools open, thereby reducing disruptions to children's education and parent's work schedules. While outbreaks have all but disappeared in high schools, where most students are vaccinated, those in elementary schools across the province have doubled over the past two weeks.
Thus far, children's vaccinations have been extremely popular, with 36,000 appointments booked at city clinics alone in the first 36 hours they were available. As of yesterday, appointments could still be had at all five locations, including Mitchell Field, through next week and up to December 11. Appointments can be booked on the Provincial booking site, available at toronto.ca/covid19
Children’s vaccinations are also being provided through some hospitals, pediatricians and at 240 pharmacies. School-based mobile clinics are being offered in neighbourhoods at highest risk for COVID-19 transmission. None of these are currently in Willowdale.
The vaccine is the same Pfizer product used for older groups but the dose is only one third the size. A minimum of eight weeks separates first and second doses because studies have shown that this interval provides the best rate of immunity. The children's vaccine, shown to provide more than 90% efficacy seven days after the second dose, is new to Canada, but some two million doses have been distributed in the U.S. with no reports of serious side effects. Health experts point to a far greater likelihood of illness and long-term risk from COVID in children who are unvaccinated.
City clinics are designed to provide a fun and friendly experience, putting kids at ease with stickers, colouring pages, activities and superhero selfie stations.
Because many parents may wish more information about children's COVID vaccines before booking an appointment, I am hosting a telephone town hall on Monday, December 6 from 7:30 - 9:00 PM. See below for more details.
The Need for Third Doses
A dramatic rise in COVID across Europe - before any uptick from Omicron - should give pause to anyone who thinks the pandemic is nearing its end. The World Health Organization warned this week that half a million Europeans could die from COVID in the coming months, and countries which thought they'd turned the corner are instituting new measures to protect the vaccinated from the unvaccinated.
A rising death toll in Germany prompted strong new restrictions there. In France, boosters are being offered to all adults, and health passes will not be renewed for those who refuse. Austria, has imposed a nationwide lockdown and made vaccinations mandatory. Italy has made vaccination or frequent testing a condition of being able to work.
In Ontario, where the Premier has talked about removing vaccine and masking mandates early in 2022, cases are also surging. The province reported 927 new cases and six deaths today – numbers not seen for months. It's hard to imagine this won't get much worse in coming weeks as people gather indoors, and COVID trends in Europe tend to appear in North America a few weeks later.
But here, a high vaccination rate (89% 12+ with one dose and 86% with two), combined with restrictions, is still providing strong community protection. That is evidenced by relatively low hospital and ICU hospital admission rates, especially in Toronto.
Health experts are strongly advising you to get first, second and third vaccine doses as soon as you are eligible. Although those who are fully vaccinated can still get COVID, their chances of doing so or transmitting it are greatly reduced. Perhaps more important, vaccines continue to be extremely effective at reducing the risk of serious illness. This in turn keeps our ICUs free for others needing surgeries and urgent care.
Data released yesterday by Public Health Canada showed that, as of Nov. 14, 90.9 % of COVID hospitalizations and 90.2 % of deaths occurred among the unvaccinated, compared with 2.7% and 3.3% among the fully vaccinated.
Although some breakthrough infections lead to serious illness, this is almost exclusively with older people or for those with underlying medical conditions. Only nine fully-vaccinated people in Ontario under 60 have ended up in ICU.
Anyone over 70, in addition to others in high-risk categories, is eligible for a third shot eight weeks after their second. It is hoped that the Province will soon extend this to younger age groups, especially those over 60.
This week's song, courtesy of Paul McCartney, speaks to the ongoing difficulty in reaching your desired destination. - John