Look, the biggest risk Dr. Bonnie Henry is taking with our lives with her new vaccination plan is that we will be ready but not able to enjoy the rest of the continent as we wish for a while.
The province’s health officer’s intuitive but evidence-based initiative to prolong the interval between the first and second doses to four months to broaden the jab’s first reach is her defining moment in the recovery of our public and economic health.
We could look back with a simple slogan: She kept and made us safer faster.
If it is the wrong approach, it is a course that can be corrected by reducing the doses’ interval. If it works, well, it is inspired. Right now it appears a limited-downside, massive-upside proposition, a possible game-changer to effect important steps to normalcy.
That there are Henry’s doubters elsewhere is not new. They struggled from the outset to recognize the threat as she did, suppress the first wave as she did, provide a level of activity to avert the worst of the physical and mental health consequences as she did and avert a second lockdown as she did.
True, our wisest course of national action would have been a full-scale lockdown for about three months at the start of 2021. But we couldn’t do it – people wouldn’t stand for it, holidaying idiots in authority positions were thumbing their noses at basic boundaries. The next-best proposition was another innovative pandemic pivot.
Various vaccines emerged in recent months in historic record time, but they arrived with the asterisk of limiting the clinical trials’ duration to rush (but not hasten) to market. With lives at stake, there was not time to evaluate longer-term effects of the first dose. Instead, science focused on how soon a second dose could be administered. What researchers could not conclude before gaining approval to administer their discoveries was how long a second dose could wait.
Now we are getting an excellent handle on that a few months into vaccinations worldwide, and Henry has divined from the evidence in other jurisdictions that one dose can suffice in a pinch – and, no fault of hers, the limited vaccine supply in the early going in Canada is exactly that pinch.
Better, she thought, to get more people quite, quite safe than a smaller number fully, fully so. Her judgment was backed last week by the National Advisory Council on Immunization (NACI), which will stir other provinces to follow Henry’s path. Good, because the Canadian public health models of the months to come are not particularly assuring.
The national caseload is edging up and a third wave fuelled by the more virulent variants is more likely than not before we reach the vaccination level sufficient as a country to repel their consequences.
The ultramarathon of the pandemic now features a sprinting interval to jab as many British Columbians as quickly as possible to build the population’s immunity, and Henry has decided to take off the customized Fluevogs and put on the runners to get us across the line.
This judo manoeuvre on the variant could prove an earlier elixir to the economy. What it could do, too, is isolate us as we get into summer, so there would not be full economic restitution. The United States will be enjoying a lot more freedom than us, but our border will likely remain closed to needed tourists. Other Canadian provinces will lag, even if they’re now jumping in.
For our economy, it will mean another summer of hurt for the hospitality sector and others.
It was imprudent of Canada’s chief science advisor, Mona Nemer, to smear Henry’s decision so readily as a “population level experiment.” Those experiments were earlier conducted elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Israel and even in Quebec, which was not similarly chided. For all its slowness, Canada is getting to benefit from the experiences elsewhere, and the more nimble public health officers are converting the knowledge into action, not static deliberation and doubt. I will wager these are words Nemer will eat.
That being said, the variants remain the wild card, even if the U.K. has signalled they have reached peak fury. The longer the interval between doses, the more susceptible we may be to the consequences of their spread. America’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, the only other prominent health officer with the credibility of Henry, suggests there is a risk in that.
On balance, it makes the B.C. initiative feel assertive, courageous, but not reckless. We are used to being out front on issues. What we are likely to find, too, is that the supply of vaccines will grow quickly and that it will be possible to reduce the four-month interval. We may even meet the national September all-done deadline, albeit well behind our neighbours to the south.
For every pandemic threat to our safety now, science is getting stronger as a worthy adversary. We haven’t won the war on COVID-19, but the emerging wisdom is a great weapon. •
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.