As more Albertans receive COVID-19 vaccines, provincial officials are hopeful cases and transmission will decrease, meaning capacity limits will be eased and people will be able to gather safely.
As of April 12, more than 970,000 vaccines had been administered in Alberta.
“Right now, more than 16 per cent of Albertans have received at least one dose of vaccine,” Alberta Health told Global News on Tuesday morning.
Premier Jason Kenney has repeatedly said every adult in Alberta will be offered a first dose of vaccine by the end of June, as long as supply arrives as scheduled.
He said in the next few weeks, about a quarter of Albertans will have “some degree of immunity either through the vaccines or from prior infection.”
By the end of May, Kenney expects that fraction to rise to about half of Albertans. By the end of June, about two thirds of Albertans will have some protection and by mid-September, about three quarters, Kenney explained.
“As more people become immune, we’ll be able to get back to normal faster,” he said on Monday.
“When about half of us have immunity, we’re hoping to be able to raise capacity limits for gatherings.
“We’re anticipating that we’ll be able to gather together in larger groups,” the premier said. “Some restrictions may remain but not anything like right now.”
“Once two-thirds of us have immunity, we will start to feel back to normal. There will be no formal restrictions. Stampede, sporting events, other festivals will be possible, especially if outdoors, likely with certain public health precautions.”
“Once three-quarters of us are immune, we expect we’ll be fully back to normal,” Kenney said.
“To be clear, that figure is protective coverage; it’s not vaccines administered, because according to our epidemiologists — Dr. Hinshaw and her team — the vaccine does not provide 100 per cent effectiveness. And that is particularly true of the first dose in the double-dose vaccines.”
Alberta Health explained the percentages do not refer to the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated, but rather the proportion of the population that will have developed significant immunity to COVID-19.
Spokesperson Tom McMillan explained it takes about two weeks after receiving a vaccine to start developing immunity.
“The numbers also factor in polling data, which indicates around 75 per cent of Albertans are interested in receiving the vaccine, as well as the protection factor of a first dose of vaccine, which is estimated to be approximately 75 per cent,” McMillan said.
“Overall, the data takes all these facts into account, and reflects the percentage of Albertans who will have developed immunity by receiving the first dose of vaccine at least two weeks prior, as well as a small percentage who will have developed antibodies providing some immunity through recent COVID-19 infection.”
McMillan stressed no decisions have been made and the government will “consider the vaccine’s impact as more Albertans are immunized.”
In the meantime, Albertans are being asked to work hard to bend down the curve once more.
On Tuesday, Alberta identified 1,081 new COVID-19 cases, including 705 cases of variants of concern. There were 402 people in hospital with COVID-19, 88 of whom were in intensive care.
‘Best summer we’ve ever had’
Kenney reiterated his goal of having “the best summer ever” on Tuesday, as long as Albertans follow health restrictions, limit in-person interactions and virus spread for just a little while longer.
“Please, if you can, stay at home, avoid social interaction, don’t give that virus any chance to spread for the next few weeks. And if you do that, we can have the best summer we’ve ever had. We can gather with friends on patios and bars and in homes and reconnect and make up for lost time,” the premier said.
“With natural immunity from those who have already been infected and the protective shield of vaccines, we will hopefully be able to see a return to normal by summer. I remain hopeful that we’ll have a Calgary Stampede, that we’ll once again be able to raise a pint with friends and toast our nation on Canada Day and we’ll be watching our kids’ soccer and baseball games on those beautiful Alberta summer days.”
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health agreed a more normal summer is a possibility.
“We’ve been looking very closely at the experiences of other countries around the world who have rolled out their immunization programs more rapidly,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
“What we’re looking at for the summer is… when we’re able to offer (the vaccine) to all Albertans and start rolling out our second doses as quickly as possible, we believe we will have the ability to — while we may continue to see some infections — that the impact on our acute-care system can be significantly mitigated with what we anticipate will be our vaccine rollout at that time.”
However, Hinshaw said there are two very important considerations.
“That strategy will work if we’re able to reduce the volume of infections right now.
“Because as I mentioned, our vaccination program can build a wall of protection that’s effective particularly after the second dose, but if the flood of new infections is greater than our ability to contain it, that could delay that opening strategy.”
The efficacy of protection offered by the first dose and second dose should also be taken into account, she said.
“If we have high enough uptake of vaccine… If we can build a strong enough wall of protection, and if we’re able to turn our cases and our hospitalizations numbers down, I believe that it’s possible we could have large events this summer.
“They may look a bit different in terms of masking, distancing, some alterations in terms of indoor events,” Hinshaw added.
“This is about two things: Our ability to reduce our cases and that burden on the health-care system and that collective effort to get as many people vaccinated as possible.
“And if we’re able to do that, I think it is possible we could have large events this summer.”
In terms of the vaccine’s impact on cases numbers, severe outcomes and public restrictions, one expert says some promising real-world data is coming out of the United Kingdom.
David Evans is a professor in the department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Alberta.
He believes Alberta officials may be making their estimates based on other regions’ experiences with vaccination and immunity, like the U.K.
“Some of the data there is really very encouraging. The U.K., of course, is being where the U.K. variant — one of these variants of concern — arose before Christmas,” Evans said.
“And yet it seems to be the effect of vaccination is working. The number of deaths from COVD-19 in the U.K. has declined dramatically.”
More than half of adults in the U.K. have received their first dose of vaccine.
“They’re seeing a response and the vaccine seems to be working and it seems to be working against a variant of concern,” Evans said.
Alberta’s estimated timeline
Using that kind of data as a starting point, Alberta’s timeline guesses are “not unreasonable,” he said.
“I think they can start to make some guesses as to how changes in the immunity level in populations in places like Canada might progress and in turn how they might be able to start to alter some of the public health measures.”
“It’s a not unreasonable guess given certain facts that I think they can be pretty sure about: that there will be a certain amount of vaccine, there will be a certain amount of uptake, we do have the resources to deliver it at a certain rate and places, and we’re seeing what happens when these things are tested out there in the world where a COVID variant is circulating.
“Things look fairly promising.”
“I noticed the premier, in some of his comments, was also taking into account the proportion of Albertans who said they’d take the vaccine when it comes versus those who wouldn’t. I think they’re reasonably good guesses.”
However, Evans said it’s still too early to make a hard prediction.
“They could go sideways, always, with some new variant coming along or some new accident in terms of the delivery of vaccines
“If, for example, if for whatever reason — and I’m not saying it’s going to happen — but imagine a new variant suddenly popped up — and evolution generates all kinds of these things — that is far more infectious than even the ones we have now, then the impact of a strain like that spreading might start to hazard our estimates of spread in the presence of vaccines,” Evans said.
“In other words, if the vaccine efficacy starts to drop off because yet another strain pops up, then you’re going to have problems with these models.”
Another huge factor is how many people get vaccinated.
“If we don’t get enough vaccines distributed to people, what you’re going to see is sort of waves of infection,” Evans said.
“We could just keep constantly having this unfortunate cycle of a new strain arises, cases rise again, the intensive care units get hazarded, the government has to come in and put in some restrictions, and then of course everyone gets upset, then we bring it under control, and it goes down and everyone says: ‘Woo hoo, we quit, we can go back to normal,’ and then another outbreak.
“The history of epidemics has seen that where you get these waves of repeated infections. You have to do a really, really solid job of immunizing to bring things to a stop.”
He says vaccines work best when there’s low levels of disease and the spread rate is very low. That’s why governments are working hard to bring things under control before variant cases soar, Evans said.
“The more virus that’s circulating out there, the more opportunities there are for that virus to mutate into something that the vaccines and the current strategies have the capacity to control,” he said.
“People just need to bite the bullet, hang in there, get the vaccines, take the vaccines, continue to do their best to stop the spread, and if everyone does it, then I think we’ll be ok.”