The imminent threat of COVID-19 variants has Canada, and much of the rest of the world, scrambling to ramp up its vaccination rollout.
If provincial governments wish to curb their spread quickly, experts say opening up doses to young people, who are more likely to be essential workers, is a crucial first step.
“With the variants, we have this new issue that people who are younger are becoming sicker, and this coincides with our essential workers who might be in the same age group,” said Dr. Omar Khan, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering.
“They may become the new vulnerable population.”
Little is known yet about these variants, first discovered in Britain, Brazil, and South Africa, but recent studies have found them be more easily transmissible and cause more severe reactions. One such study, published March 15 in the scientific journal Nature, suggested Britain’s B.1.1.7 variant could be between 40 and 70 per cent deadlier than its predecessors depending on how the strain is measured.
Canada has the most experience with the B1.1.7 variant. To date, public health officials have detected 14,790 cases of the strain throughout every province in the country.
Why are the variants disproportionately affecting young people?
Cases of the virus are now highest among young adults aged 20 to 39, federal public health modelling released March 26 shows. But experts say it isn’t because they’re partying.
“It’s not rocket science,” Dr. Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, told Global News. “A lot of essential workers are, in fact, younger folks.”
For example, the most recent Labour Force Survey released by Statistics Canada said “half of young women (in Canada) are employed in accommodation and food services, and retail trade” — industries that were among the first to close amid pandemic restrictions and some of the first to reopen.
Statistics Canada defined youth as Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24.
“The virus is getting more effective at expanding its scope,” Furness said.
“Working conditions are rather poor and ventilation is poor and training is poor and supervision is poor and pay is low. It’s the usual high risk, low status, precarious work — that’s where COVID thrives.”
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Is it time to re-evaluate Canada’s vaccine rollout?
Several provinces have already begun to update their vaccination plans.
On Wednesday, provincial health officials in Quebec announced the province was expanding its vaccination rollout to include essential workers and the chronically ill. Areas of Ontario that are hotspots, such as York and Peel regions, have begun vaccinating people aged 50 and up ahead of schedule.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday that the provincial government was working on a plan to vaccinate essential workers and teachers, but even still, the government framework revealed they still wouldn’t get their shots until mid-May.
In Alberta, several pharmacies have begun taking matters into their own hands and doling out leftover vaccines to a waitlist including Canadians who won’t be eligible for their shots for months.
The federal government has hinted at recommending a revamped vaccine rollout. On Tuesday, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) was developing a strategy that would target geographic locations with higher numbers of confirmed cases.
“Of course, there is the need to protect the people who are going to get the most sick, which still remains some of the more senior population,” she said.
“But at this stage, there’s also a recommendation to prioritize front-line essential workers who cannot work virtually, and they have direct close physical contact with the public.”
Experts also seem to think so.
According to Furness, the federal government would be wise to re-tool vaccine rollouts to prioritize people at higher risk of contracting the virus and postal codes located in COVID-19 hot spots, rather than age.
The would include teachers, grocery store, liquor and drugstore workers and others with occupational exposure, he added.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician at the Toronto General Hospital, echoed Furness’s statements.
“As Phase I moves into Phase II in Ontario, we really have to focus on people who are at greatest risk of dying, but also people who are at greatest risk of getting this infection as well and amplifying the infection in the community,” he said.
Bogoch added that includes essential workers, as well as individuals at high risk of getting sick and dying from infection too.
To date, the federal government said it has vaccinated just over 92 per cent of Canadians living in long-term care facilities and more than 73 per cent of Canadians aged 80 and older — two demographics considered most at-risk during the first and second waves of COVID-19.
But with the third wave, Bogoch said “the demographics have changed.”
“We have vaccinated almost everybody in long term care. We vaccinated a ton of health-care professionals and we vaccinated a lot of community-dwelling seniors,” he said.
“And look who’s noticeably absent from this wave!”
— With files from The Canadian Press