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Mixed-race family, dad, mom, daughter, picnic together at a park.
With Hamilton and the rest of Ontario in Step 3 of reopening, gathering in larger groups, unmasked, is permitted. The safest way to move forward is if everyone eligible is fully vaccinated. (Stock photo)
July 16, 2021

Vaccine success essential in Step 3 reopening in Hamilton

As Ontario enters Step 3 of reopening today, HHS experts have answers to questions about what that means, how to keep staying safe, and where we go from here – especially for kids.

Doctor Fiona Smaill inside the vaccine clinic, wearing a blue disposable medical mask. Shoulder length grey curly hair, dark glasses.

Dr. Fiona Smaill

With vaccination rates in Hamilton and across Canada climbing and COVID cases decreasing, experts say that as long as these numbers continue their current trend, and people keep following public health advice about using masks indoors and avoiding crowds, the virus can be kept under control locally, including variants.

“Most variants are more transmissible than the original virus that circulated more than a year ago, so precautions we take to avoid transmission still need to be robust,” says Dr. Fiona Smaill, medical microbiologist and infectious diseases physician at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS). “Our hope is that with good vaccination rates and a continued decline in positive cases, we will have very few of these variants circulating.”

Focusing on the success of the vaccine

Evidence continues to show that getting two doses of any COVID-19 vaccines protects against infection, especially from becoming severely ill and requiring hospitalization. While the vaccine won’t stop every single case of the virus, most people who are fully vaccinated and test positive only have mild symptoms. “So, yes, the vaccines are working,” says Smaill.

Smaill adds that the brand of COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t matter. “Mixing vaccines that have been licensed in Canada is safe,” explains Smaill. “Whether a person received one brand or another in Canada, it’s safe. There’s no reason why you should feel you have to hold out for something different, given the strong scientific rationale.”

Walk-in vaccination available

People who remain unvaccinated – whether it’s by choice or by low engagement with the healthcare system – are most at risk of contracting COVID-19.

“If we have pockets of people who are at risk, if they have underlying health conditions, and they’re unvaccinated and catch the virus, they may need to be hospitalized,” says Smaill.

She adds that hospitals like HHS have an obligation to educate and offer assistance to those who have not yet received the vaccine. “We have to really make sure – through every possible way – that we engage those people,” says Smaill. “I asked our social worker to book appointments for some of my patients because they didn’t know how to do it themselves. And we need to get the message out that walk-ins for both doses are now encouraged at some of the vaccination centres.”

“Let kids be kids”

What might feel like a years-long journey to receive the COVID-19 vaccine across Hamilton is, in fact, only months old. In December 2020, long-term care workers began to receive their first doses. In January 2021, the vaccine rolled out to long-term care home residents. By mid-March, residents aged 80+ were eligible and by May, people as young as 12 could register for their first shot.

Selfie of coctor Martha Fulford inside her office. Brown hair pulled back, dark glasses.

Dr. Martha Fulford

However, there is still a portion of the population that remains ineligible for the vaccine: children 11 years old and under. Trials for that age group remain ongoing by the vaccine’s manufacturers.

“We need to emphasize how very seldom children are affected by COVID.”

Dr. Martha Fulford is a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at HHS’ McMaster Children’s Hospital (MCH) and says children in the 11-and-under age category are at very low risk from the virus.

“There’s never going to be zero risk. But my expectations, and that of my colleagues, is that we’re not expecting COVID to be more common in children,” says Fulford. “One of the good news stories about this pandemic that we need to emphasize more is how very seldom children are affected by COVID. The harm to our children has been from the unintended impacts of this virus.”

Fulford says the anxiety parents of young children are feeling is understandable, given that COVID restrictions are lifting across the city and the province.

“There’s lots of anxiety because Ontario has been shut down for a while,” she says. “But we need to be realistic about what we’re scared of – and we should not be scared for our children. I’m pro-vaccine because I want to avoid severe hospitalization and death, but I’m comfortable that with case numbers going down and vaccination rates going up, that we can just let kids be kids.”

Learning to coexist with COVID

Both Smaill and Fulford say that the virus will never go away entirely. In fact, physicians expect to see a rise in cases this fall. “COVID will become an endemic virus – a regular seasonal virus,” says Fulford.

By vaccinating those who are eligible, severe disease from the virus can be largely kept under control and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed to avoid what was experienced with the third wave.

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