To date, more than 10.3 million people in Canada have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.
With roughly 25 per cent of the Canadian population now vaccinated against the virus, many are wondering if it’s safe for them to return to some semblance of normal, such as having indoor gatherings with friends, or hugging their grandparents. Experts, though, are urging restraint.
“We know that the first vaccine seems to offer good protection, but then there’s a lot of new variants spreading around,” said Dr. Stephen Hoption Cann, chair of the University of British Columbia’s clinical research ethics board. “We don’t really know how good that protection is after every variant.”
So what can you do differently now that you’ve been vaccinated? According to the federal government, nothing. At least, until more of the population is fully vaccinated.
Health Canada has yet to update its recommendations on what Canadians can and can’t do while they await their second doses, but until then, the federal government has made its stance clear: act as though you haven’t been vaccinated yet and continue to follow public health guidelines.
Even Global Affairs Canada has specified there will be “no exceptions for vaccinated travellers” looking to move through the country’s borders.
“Everyone is looking forward to a future when we can be together,” Health Canada’s website says. “Until then, we need to protect each other, especially those who are still vulnerable to severe disease from COVID-19.”
This differs from the United States.
On April 2, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines for Americans who have received both COVID-19 vaccine doses.
Fully vaccinated people there travel domestically and do not need to get tested before or after travel or self-quarantine once they return. They also aren’t required by the U.S. to get tested before leaving the country. They can visit other fully vaccinated people indoors without needing to wear masks and no longer need to keep physically distant.
Why isn’t Canada following the United States?
Kelly Grindrod, associate professor at the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy, also notes that Canada is “in a very different situation than the Americans are.”
Less than three per cent of Canadians have been given their second dose of the vaccine, the majority of which are health-care providers.
Hampered by vaccine shipment delays, Grindrod said officials were forced to choose between vaccinating all Canadians with one dose by June and then doling out second doses later and selecting an “elite few” to be fully protected.
“That’s partly why the American CDC guidelines don’t apply to us, because we’re not in the same boat as them,” she said.
“We chose to double the number of people who are partially protected, whereas the Americans had enough vaccine that they could fully protect a pretty large chunk of their population.”
Scientific evidence makes it clear that the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in Canada are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death, the Public Health Agency of Canada said in an emailed statement to Global News. But they don’t prevent transmission.
“It is unknown whether vaccinated individuals can still be asymptomatic and spread the virus, thus can still pose a public health risk,” the agency said.
Until that can be ascertained, PHAC said it would continue to promote public health measures that have already proven to be effective “including wearing a mask, washing hands and maintaining physical distancing.”
Scientists around the world have been moving at breakneck speeds to learn as much as they can about COVID-19. But Cann said there are still “a lot of unknowns” when it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine’s effectiveness.
The added backdrop of variants of concern rampaging across Canada doesn’t help.
A person could become more susceptible to variants of concern post-injection while their immune system develops an effective response to the vaccine, he said. And anybody who has been vaccinated but hasn’t yet developed an effective immunity response could still be vulnerable to the effects of the virus.
“The real risk is actually to society, not the individual: partially vaccinated people taking exposure risks will provide COVID-19 with opportunities to evade the vaccine,” said Colin Furness, an epidemiologist with the University of Toronto.
“There is nothing worse than a partially immune population getting repeatedly exposed to spur the virus to adapt.”
Not everybody develops a strong immunity to the virus straight away. According to Grindrod, it takes around two weeks for the human body to start forming the necessary antibodies that can protect them from COVID-19. And even after, there is no guarantee that a person will be 100 per cent immune from the virus.
“You don’t know if you’re the person who is protected or not. We hope you are, but it’s still a chance,” she said.