Vaccines are the fastest way out of COVID-19, says Peel’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh

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By Sabrina Almeida

“The challenges we are having right now is because unfortunately many people in our community have chosen to remain unvaccinated and are adding pressure to our health care systems both by ending up as patients and also by requiring these isolation protocols that are keeping people off work and absent when they get exposed to COVID-19,” said Peel’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh. “So the fastest way for us all to get out of this especially is if people can take their first and second dose and make sure that they are getting boosted if they are over 50,” he told CanIndia News. “The vaccine is safe, effective, it reduces severe outcomes and will hopefully ensure that we can resolve this situation in our hospitals sooner rather than later.”

Here are excerpts of the interview. 

Why must we take COVID-19 vaccines?

Vaccines help reduce the possibility of infection and risk of transmission as well as protect against severe outcomes like hospitalization, intensive care admission and also mortality or death.

We saw how Delta really devastated a highly susceptible unvaccinated population in those grim images from the Indian subcontinent back in the spring of last year. Here in Canada, vaccines were particularly good in helping to suppress the Delta wave.

With Omicron, there is anywhere between a 10 to 40% reduction of risk with two doses, which jumps to 77% with three doses which is why the booster is so important on the infection front.  Two doses also remain almost 75 to 80% effective in reducing hospitalization and intensive care admission and therefore reducing mortal outcomes in the long run.

Can vaccines cause serious side effects and health complications?

Vaccines prime your immune system to recognize when an infectious invader comes into your midst and prevent it from developing into a full blown infection. That’s not just with the COVID-19 vaccine, but also those made for chicken pox, measles, whooping cough, etc. You usually recover from chickenpox and measles in 14 to 21 days. It is the same with COVID-19. The vaccine’s side effects are usually within those 14 to 21 days because it is simulating that immune response. Typically it is mild like a low grade fever, or your arm hurting around the injection site. That’s your body’s immune system responding to the vaccine so that the next time you are actually exposed to COVID-19, it will either prevent the infection or limit it to a mild one. Most I’ve seen don’t have serious side effects.

The quick development of COVID-19 vaccines has raised some concerns. Your comments… 

Before the pandemic everyone was working on different puzzles, maybe hundreds of them. When the pandemic hit, everyone decided to put aside other puzzles and start working on this one because we needed to get ahead of this thing. Every scientist, every lab and every regulator around the world cleared up their desks, so it got fast tracked to the front of the line. Everyone was working on it and building on each other’s work. There was unprecedented knowledge and data sharing between countries and labs. It really is a testament to what humanity can accomplish when we work together on a single issue and in a short time frame.

Is everyone going to get Omicron?

Everyone probably knows someone (or the whole family) who came down with COVID-19 over the holidays. This is how we are all going to be confronted with Omicron, either through infection or close contact with someone who has it. 

We don’t need people to test if they’ve got respiratory symptoms, we just presume they have Omicron just because of how widespread it is.We don’t need to trace anymore because we know it is spreading in all sorts of different locations. 

Everyone should be ensuring that their vaccine status is up-to-date which is two doses at the least and three doses if they are older. 

They should also try to reduce their contacts. This is not the best time to be visiting everybody but limiting it to those very essential trips. Stay home if you are sick so that you’re not infecting others. Wear a mask if you are up and about and when you are seeing other people just for the time being. 

Once we get through the surge hopefully many of the measures can start to be lifted again but the vaccine is always the foundation and cornerstone of protection because in reality Omicron is out there. 

Is Omicron mild? 

Although “milder” than Delta, Omicron is by no means mild. Thankfully for many people who have been vaccinated with two or three doses it is like a common cold, but some still have pretty significant respiratory symptoms like pneumonia and bronchitis. People are also ending up in intensive care units particularly if they are unvaccinated. The unvaccinated are still six times more likely to end up going to a hospital and ten times more likely to be in the ICU. So there is still a risk of severity with Omicron as with previous variants for the unvaccinated.

Why are immunized people getting Omicron?

As Omicron is a different variant and so widespread in transmission, there is a greater chance that even people who have been vaccinated may get infected. But when someone who has been vaccinated gets infected, they are significantly less likely to have a severe presentation of the virus. For people who remain unvaccinated however, the risks are still clear. This coronavirus is new to their body and their immune system as it was in January 2020 when it first emerged in China.

Why do people who have had COVID-19 need to be vaccinated?

We have two types of immunity – active and memory. The active immunity you get from a COVID-19 infection that can help prevent a future infection wanes very quickly, probably in one or two months. We’re still not clear how much memory immunity, that comes from being naturally infected, will protect you because it is such a new disease. But we have data from vaccines that shows a robust immunity from two doses – both with active immunity in preventing infections and memory immunity that prevents severity in the long run. That is why we recommend people who have had COVID-19 still get the vaccine, for greater surety.

What’s your advice to parents hesitant about vaccinating their 5 to 11 year olds?

I highly recommend it. I have children in this age group who got vaccinated as soon as it became available. While children typically have a milder course of COVID-19, some do end up hospitalized and have very rare but severe outcomes. Since we do not have a very clear understanding as to which kids are going to have these severe outcomes, we strongly recommend getting your children protected with the COVID-19 vaccine.

Also, they are going to grow up and be in a different age group when their risk will be different at some point in time. If they are 30, 40 or 50 have never been vaccinated or infected, then the risk is still there in terms of it being a very novel virus for their systems. So do the right thing, give yourself peace of mind and your children protection with the vaccine.

Will we have to take boosters every three to four months?

No, I don’t think so. The decision to reduce the interval to three months was in recognition of this very significant Omicron wave in spite of having a highly vaccinated population. It was for everybody to make sure that their immunity is up to date and reduce the risk of severe outcomes particularly if they are older, like above the age of 50 where we tried to focus on getting boosters first.

It does not mean two doses are not good, but that a third dose is particularly helpful when there is widespread activity with the virus, to provide that additional layer of protection. 

Any future variant is probably going to be milder than Omicron which means that boosters will be  needed on an annual basis, something similar to your flu shot.

“The reason why we are having such difficulty in our health care system and in our society right now is because a lot of the people who are unvaccinated are starting to drive up hospital demand both in the ward and in the ICU,” added Dr. Loh. “We still have isolation protocols in place because we have to protect people that are vulnerable and those that are unvaccinated. We don’t want to pass it onto them and have a severe outcome potentially. So the fastest way for us all to get out of this is if people can take their first and second dose and make sure that they are getting boosted if they are over 50.” 

For more information about vaccines and appointment bookings visit peelregion.ca/covid19vaccines.

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