As eligibility for second COVID-19 vaccine doses starts to open up across the country, many Canadians are quickly joining the “fully vaccinated” group. Just as quickly, however, they are finding themselves in new, confusing territory.
It’s not yet clear what fully vaccinated citizens in Canada can and cannot do. That’s because the federal government says there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
To date, federal health officials have not rolled out guidelines detailing which behaviours are considered safe for fully vaccinated adults.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said it’s because individuals need to take a personal risk assessment.
“You have to take into account local infection rates as well as personal vaccination status,” Tam said Tuesday speaking at a media conference.
“Individuals need to take a personal risk assessment. Not everyone is the same,” she said, adding that risks may be quite different depending on whether you have underlying medical conditions, if you are a senior or where you are working.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” she added.
As of Monday, nearly five million Canadians (or 13 per cent) have been fully vaccinated, according to COVID-19 Tracker Canada. And 64.6 per cent of the population have received at least one dose.
And that number continues to grow. Many provinces are now administering second doses of COVID-19 vaccines earlier than expected, due to the high number of people who have received their first vaccine, a large supply of doses, and growing concerns about the Delta variant.
South of the border, the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has laid out a clear framework of what fully vaccinated adults can do amid the pandemic.
In mid-May, the CDC eased mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated Americans, permitting them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings. It also provided a list of activities that are safe for vaccinated people but could be risky for those who are unvaccinated.
And according to one expert, these guidelines not only provide a safe framework on how to socialize when fully inoculated, but also provide an incentive for vaccine-hesitant people to get their shot.
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Azim Shariff, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia, told the Canadian Press that data out of the U.S. is proving just that.
“Given how important it is to get as large a percentage of the population vaccinated as soon as possible, there is value in making use of this incentive,” he wrote in an email.
Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases physician at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, said this type of guidance from the government is “extremely important,” because it helps give people an idea of what they can and can’t do safely, but also because it demonstrates that the vaccines are effective and are “our ticket out of the pandemic.”
“I get the fact that we are in a transition period now where certain people are fully vaccinated (but) others aren’t, so this has to be kept in mind,” he told Global News. “Obviously, we can’t be throwing off our masks, for example, in indoor spaces.”
He said while some measures will have to remain in place, if new guidance isn’t offered, people are “going to do what they want, and forge their own pathway.”
“The least we could do is give them guidance to keep the risk as low as possible,” he said.
Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital, said Canada’s current medical guidance is “really homogenous and applies at the population level, and doesn’t consider an individual’s vaccination status,” which he says is “troubling.”
Stall, who also serves as assistant scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, pointed to older Canadians who he said are “overwhelmingly represented” in the fully vaccinated category.
“Many older adults have been living for the last 15 months in isolation and fear, suffering from the public health measures that were put in place to save their lives,” he said. “But we need to now tell them what they can do. Can they dine in another person’s home with friends their age who are fully vaccinated? Can they hug their great grandchild or their grandchild?”
Stall said these are “important things.”
“We need to be providing people who have limited life expectancy,” he said.
Canada said that its current guidance will be adjusted based on factors like vaccine effectiveness, community spread and hospitalization rates.
For example, the Public Health Agency of Canada previously said that restrictions could begin easing when vaccine rates reach 75 per cent of eligible residents for a first dose and 20 per cent for a second.
On Tuesday, Tam also noted the federal government will provide a “personal risk assessment framework,” for vaccinated individuals but did not state a timeline.
But in the meantime, “your vaccination status and personal protection measures are under your control,” Tam said.
“You have to know your personal circumstances and how high risk you might be. And avoid close crowded conditions where you cannot separate from others. That kind of thing can still hold. ”
— With files from The Canadian Press