Top Doctor Says Vaccines Could Allow Toughest Restrictions to Lift Before September

February 23, 2021 Updated: February 23, 2021

OTTAWA—Canada’s chief public health officer says results from COVID-19 vaccinations are so encouraging that she thinks the need for massive lockdowns could be over before the end of the summer.

“It will it even (be) before September, I think, depending on a number of factors, such as vaccine uptake, ongoing monitoring of other variants, and how vaccine coverage is provided,” Dr. Theresa Tam said Tuesday at a news conference in Ottawa.

She said personal protective choices like masks and limited in-person contacts could be with us longer but those will depend on how well vaccines prevent not just serious illness and death, but also the spread of the novel coronavirus. Data on transmission is still being analyzed, said Tam.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out a plan for restoring life in the United Kingdom Tuesday that predicted the worst of its lockdowns could be over by June 21. The U.K. is far ahead of Canada on vaccinations, aiming to have every adult receive their first dose by the end of July.

Canada’s current goal is for that to happen by the end of September, with interim goals to vaccinate at least three million people by the end of March and more than 14 million people by the end of June.

Tam wouldn’t give a specific date for when lockdowns will no longer be needed, but this is the closest Canadian officials have ever come to putting any kind timeline on when wide-scale restrictions will actually end. Tam however warned that the Sars-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is tricky and prone to sudden turns.

“I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of what it might deal us in terms of surprises,” she said.

Those surprises include the variants of the virus that are believed to be more contagious, and might not be as susceptible to all the vaccines approved.

COVID-19 cases continue to decrease countrywide, with an average of 2,908 new cases confirmed daily over the last week, down five percent compared to a week earlier. The daily death toll fell almost 30 percent to 54 deaths per day, while hospitalizations averaged 2,400 per day, down 11 percent from a week earlier.

However, the number of cases tied to variants of concern is creeping upwards. In the last week, there were 220 new cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the U.K. In total, 780 B.1.1.7 variants have been confirmed. There have also been 39 cases of B.1.351, first identified in South Africa, and one of P.1, which first emerged in Brazil.

Newfoundland had avoided much of the impact of the second wave until the B.1.1.7 variant showed up there about two weeks ago. More than 500 cases have been confirmed in the province since Feb. 1, including another 15 cases on Tuesday.

Canada has stepped up its screening efforts against COVID-19 variants in recent weeks, said Tam. She said several provinces including Ontario, Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Alberta are now screening every positive case for the main virus mutation found in the three variants of concern.

She said more than 5,000 confirmed cases this month are being fully sequenced to look not only for the variants we know about, but potentially others as well.

Canada’s vaccination program is revving up, after the delivery of 403,650 doses from Pfizer-BioNTech last week. There are another 643,000 doses, made up of both Pfizer-BioN-Tech and Moderna’s vaccines, this week.

On Monday, nearly 62,000 people were vaccinated, the most in a single day ever.

Procurement Minister Anita Anand said Tuesday that most of this week’s deliveries are already on the ground.

There have been very positive data from Canada, Israel and the U.K. in the last week showing the effect that even a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine is having to reduce deaths and serious illness.

The latest report comes from Scotland, where public health officials reported preliminary data Tuesday showing four weeks after a single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech or AstraZeneca vaccines, hospital admissions for COVID-19 were down between 85 and 94 percent.

Last week, Quebec and British Columbia reported a single dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines had been more than 80 percent effective against COVID-19 among long-term care residents and front-line hospital staff.

More than 1.1 million Canadians have received a single dose at least, with more than 450,000 now fully vaccinated.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault announced Tuesday the province will begin vaccinating the general population next week, beginning with Montreal-area seniors aged 85 and up.

Canada’s vaccination goals could be moved up if Health Canada approves any of the three vaccines being reviewed at the moment.

Anand said Tuesday Canada is getting 20 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine from a U.S. facility between April and September, but is negotiating with the Serum Institute of India to get new doses of that vaccine from there too.

Health Canada has been in the final stages of its review of AstraZeneca’s vaccine for several weeks now.

By Mia Rabson