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As vaccinations ramp up in B.C., who remains at greatest risk of COVID-19?

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Nearly three months in to mass immunizations, more than 2.3 million British Columbians or almost 63 per cent of the province's population - have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Still as Kristen Robinson reports, the virus claimed more than 120 lives in May.

As the number of British Columbians to get the protection of at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine climbs, the death toll from the virus has slowed significantly.

But it hasn’t dried up completely — at least 123 people died from complications of COVID-19 between May 3 to May 31.

Those most at risk of death early in the pandemic — the elderly — were also the first to get their shots and have seen the fatality rate drop precipitously since the mass vaccination campaign began.

Read more: Exhaustion and cautious optimism: On the front lines at B.C.’s busiest COVID-19 ICU

“We’re having high levels of protection once there has been a three-week interval from the first dose, so that’s in the high 90 per cent,” family physician Dr. Birinder Narang told Global News.

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“Where we have the strongest data is coming from the nursing homes, because that’s where we started vaccinating late December, early January.”

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According to the BC Centre for Disease Control, deaths among people aged over 80 fell by 81 per cent from late December to mid-February. Deaths among those aged 70-79 fell by 87 per cent.

Read more: COVID-19: B.C. pharmacies getting supply of AstraZeneca 2nd doses Monday

So who is most at risk now? According to St. Paul’s Hospital respirologist Dr. Don Sin, it’s adults who have yet to get their first dose.

“There may be one or two or three individuals who may succumb to the disease despite full vaccination,” he said.

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“But I would say the majority have not received the vaccination who have developed very severe COVID.”

As of last weekend, there were just under 40 patients in the intensive care unit at Surrey Memorial Hospital, the majority of whom were unvaccinated, according to Fraser Health.

Asked about how many of the 123 deaths in May were unvaccinated patients, the Ministry of Health would only say it has identified a small number of infections among those who had been immunized.

Those infections are generally milder than those in unvaccinated people, according to the ministry.

At a May 13 presentation, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said B.C. had identified 30 deaths among “breakthrough” cases — people who had developed COVID-19 three or more weeks after getting their first dose of vaccine.

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Read more: B.C. holds new COVID-19 cases under 200 for 4th day, reports 1 death

At the time, B.C. had administered about 1.7 million vaccines. The average age of those deaths was 87.

In the same presentation, Henry said the province had recorded 120 cases of patients who had developed COVID-19 more than three weeks after having a second dose.

Some of those people, Sin said, may have already had a depressed immune system and who, despite vaccines, were unable to produce enough antibodies to fight the virus off.

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“So, those who are on immunosuppressive medications, those who are on dialysis, those who are on chemotherapy, those who are elderly, and for that reason alone, may not mount a good antibody response — these are the individuals who, despite having one vaccine jab, can get covered and become quite ill with the disease,” Sin said.

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The best way to protect yourself from developing a serious infection, he added, is to ensure you were in line to get fully immunized as early as possible.

“In my personal practice, I haven’t encountered anyone who had received two doses of the vaccine who became very ill from it. I have yet to see that,” Sin said.

I’m extremely optimistic. I think countries that have had great success in getting two shots into to their citizens have experienced dramatic fall off in the case numbers of covert fatalities from COVID, hospitalizations from COVID — and in Canada, we’ll see the same thing as soon as we have 50, 60, 70 per cent of adults with two shots of the vaccine.”

As of Friday, just under 257,000, or about five per cent, of all British Columbians had received their second dose.

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