How quickly will the COVID-19 vaccines start curbing the pandemic in Canada?

Vaxx Populi: If we vaccinate older people first, we should start to see reduced deaths and hospitalizations within a month, says one expert

More than 20,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered on Jan. 5, including a dose given to Josephee Adams, a 70-year-old resident of the Iqaluit Elders’ Centre, who was the first person in Nunavut to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Territorial and provincial vaccination programs are ramping up: the 13,046 doses injected into the arms of Ontarians on Jan. 6 represents 18.3 per cent of all doses given out since the province’s program began on Dec. 14, according to data collected by the COVID-19 Canada Open Data Working Group

The need is urgent: On Jan. 6, Canada reported another 7,929 cases of COVID-19, as well as 194 new hospitalizations and 172 deaths, while temporary morgues in refrigerated trailers are now parked at the Windsor Regional Hospital and the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario and field hospitals have opened in Ottawa and Burlington, Ont., while another is being constructed in the Butterdome on the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton.

RELATED: Why aren’t governments reserving second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine anymore?

With few signs that the second wave is slowing, one of the questions that is top of mind of many is how quickly the vaccines will begin to improve the situation in Canada. 

As soon as this month or the next, the experts say, depending on the swiftness of the vaccination programs and their focus. “If we are vaccinating older people first, we will see reduced deaths and hospitalizations essentially within a month of the [widespread] vaccine rollout,” Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases physician in Edmonton and associate professor at the University of Alberta, told Maclean’s last month, after plans were unveiled to vaccinate three million Canadians by the end of March 2021. 

The 70-plus age group is in the first priority group to get the vaccine because of the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on the elderly. Fifty-four per cent of all hospital admissions and 38 per cent of ICU admissions due to COVID-19 were of patients aged 70 and older, according to Public Health Agency of Canada data. As well, 89 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths have been in that same age group. 

RELATED: Who is next in line for the vaccine in Canada?

Dr. Robyn Lee, an infectious diseases epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, says that a key indicator of the vaccine program’s effect will be the number of cases at long-term care (LTC) facilities. “I’m hoping we’ll see a decrease,” Lee says. “I hope we see that very rapidly.” On Jan. 5, the Ontario government accelerated its vaccination plans, announcing it would vaccinate all LTC residents, workers and essential caregivers in COVID-19 hotspots by Jan. 21. As some protection is provided even with the first dose, the effects of those initial shots could soon be seen in the COVID-19 data.  

What is less clear is how the vaccination plan will impact the overall number of cases in the country, cautions Kevin Wilson, an epidemiologist in Halifax, for, while most COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths involve seniors, the the majority of cases in general are of those in younger age groups. “The effect on case numbers will depend on whether the vaccine prevents infection or just makes infections less dangerous,” he says, as it isn’t clear as of now whether the Pfizer or Modern vaccines prevent those who have been vaccinated from still spreading the coronavirus to others.

RELATED: COVID-19 in Canada: How our battle against the second wave is going

The effect of focusing on the elderly at the start of the vaccination program will benefit all of Canada, Saxinger says, as she expects that that societal functions will improve “because a lot of the restrictions are really designed to reduce community transmission and protect health care and reduce transmission to protect the elderly.”

As Canada rolls out the country’s most complex vaccination project to date, Maclean’s presents Vaxx Populi, an ongoing series in which Patricia Treble tackles the most pressing questions related to the new COVID-19 vaccines. Send us a question you’d like answered at If you have specific questions about your own health, we recommend consulting a family doctor or the local public health authority in your area.

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