A fourth wave of COVID-19 within Canada could be among the unvaccinated, but it likely won’t be enough to bring back sweeping restrictions previously seen, according to experts.
“The next wave … is going to be primarily experienced by unvaccinated people,” University of Toronto epidemiologist Dr. Colin Furness said.
He explained that the vaccines will work as a “firebreak” to prevent mass spread of the virus and hospitalizations as seen in previous waves, and the severe restrictions placed in response.
Instead, spread will likely occur in a more localized manner among the unvaccinated.
“Non-vaccinated people occur in clumps,” he said. “They’re not randomly, evenly distributed among the population. It’s a church group. It’s an ethnic group. It’s people in an apartment building.
“That is something COVID can and will take advantage of.”
If spread gets out of hand, Furness thinks restrictions can be more targeted amid a possible fourth wave, such as closing a factory or church to prevent transmissions and severe illness.
“Any restrictions we may need are bound to be more selective, less blunt,” he said.
That being said, Furness pointed out that COVID-19 spread among the unvaccinated isn’t an isolated problem, but does affect everyone — even the vaccinated.
For one, cases could pack up ICUs again and delay non-urgent medical surgeries. That’s not to mention the potential for more virus transmissions to create a new variant that is more resistant to our current vaccines, he said.
“Unvaccinated people are everybody’s problem,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of easily avoidable illness and death.”
Thankfully, some fourth waves that are already occurring across the world have involved less deaths than in previous waves due to a high number of vaccinations, according to University of Toronto biomedical engineer professor Dr. Omar Khan.
“That’s a really good indication that yes, the vaccines are working,” he said.
Khan said Canadians should be paying attention to COVID-19 cases around the world as it can end up affecting us here.
That’s because a high number of cases can lead, again, to more variants. With border restrictions loosening but vaccinations still low in many countries, there is still the chance of a more resistant variant being imported into Canada, as has happened in the past.
“We’re at the mercy of what’s happening globally,” Khan said. “More effort has to be done to kind of try and bring this back globally so we can have stability here.”
He also pointed out that the unvaccinated are not only those who have willingly decided to not get the jab, but also children under 12 years old.
They could potentially bring home the virus to their family, which can then be transmitted to another family, according to Khan, as vaccines don’t 100 per cent prevent transmission but rather severe illness from the virus.
If that spread happens, then some restrictions in schools, such as masks and social distancing, might have to be reinforced, he said, depending on the mode of transmission.
Khan mentioned that vaccine manufacturers are working on getting approval to administer their products on children under 12 and are currently collecting clinical data.
In terms of how many vaccinations may be necessary to completely stop a fourth wave, Khan said it is difficult to pinpoint given the possibility of new variants, which drive up the number of jabs needed.
“If you give people a metric, and then you get a new variant that kind of changes everything, then you don’t want to be judging by an obsolete metric,” he said. “Things really changed with the delta variant.”
For now, Khan is just happy our current vaccines are holding up.
“We’re very fortunate that the current vaccines are working for all the variants,” he said. “So as long as we keep that bit of luck, we’re good.”