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Deaths, hospitalizations dropping among oldest Canadians as COVID-19 vaccinations ramp up

After a sluggish start, Canada’s vaccination efforts are starting to pay off, with COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths among the oldest Canadians now dropping at a faster rate than in younger adults who are less likely to be vaccinated yet, according to a CBC News analysis.

It’s a glimmer of hope that medical experts say signals the rollout is working, putting this country along the same path as countries such as the U.S., the U.K. and Israel, where mass vaccination campaigns are further along and deaths are dropping dramatically. 

“It is good news that these vaccines work, and they’re protecting some of the most vulnerable people in this pandemic,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist in Hamilton, Ont., who reviewed the data.

Dr. Prabhat Jha, director of the Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, agreed the latest trends show early progress.

“As vaccinations have reached the elderly, and people in long-term care homes, the death rates and hospitalization rates have substantially fallen in those groups,” he said.

Public health data shows positive trends

The CBC News analysis of case data from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) shows that for people over the age of 80, weekly reported COVID-19 cases began dropping quickly during the current third wave in contrast to the higher infection rates among younger groups when compared to the first two waves of the pandemic.

We compared the oldest age group — who were first to get the shot — to Canadians 69 and younger, who were further down the priority list and less likely to show the effects of the vaccine.

By February, Canada hit 10 per cent of 80-and-up residents getting at least one dose. 

After that time, the gap began to widen significantly between older and younger Canadians: while weekly cases plummeted, then quickly levelled off among seniors over 80, the case growth among those under 69 began to rise — and currently, more than 8,000 new infections are being reported each day across the country. 

Even as cases are rising in the third wave, dire outcomes also appear to be reduced for the oldest, most-vaccinated age group. 

In the first wave, hospitalizations decreased across-the-board after the peak, but now in the third wave, there’s a noticeably steeper drop among the oldest, most-vaccinated adults. 

When it comes to the death toll, it’s a similar trend. PHAC does not release Canada-wide COVID-19 deaths for all age groups — only those aged 50 and older — but it does note if someone was a long-term care resident. 

Among that group, deaths have been nearly eliminated since vaccinations began.

That’s a striking change from the first two waves, when long-term care residents made up the bulk of Canada’s COVID-19 death toll with nearly 15,000 residents dead — along with 28 staff — by mid-February, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

U.S. seeing major vaccination impacts

In the U.S., where the early vaccination rollout has been faster than Canada’s efforts in part due to a larger supply of vaccines, there’s even more striking impacts — something Canadians can look forward to as we play catch-up in the weeks ahead.

The latest data shows COVID-19 hospitalizations among older Americans have plunged more than 70 per cent since the start of the year, and deaths in that group appear to have tumbled as well, offering strong evidence the vaccination campaign is working alongside other state-level public health measures.

COVID-19 deaths among people of all ages in the U.S. have dropped to about 700 per day on average, compared with a peak of more than 3,400 daily in mid-January.

“What you’re seeing there is exactly what we hoped and wanted to see: As really high rates of vaccinations happen, hospitalizations and death rates come down,” Jodie Guest, a public health researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, told The Associated Press.

On Friday, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, noted that on a countrywide level, the Rt — the metric that tracks the average number of people one infected person will pass the virus on to — has dipped below one, which could signal that the number of new cases will decline countrywide as vaccinations ramp up.

If that positive trend continues, and at least 75 per cent of Canadians get vaccinated with at least one dose in the months ahead, Tam said there’s hope regions in lockdowns may be able to start reopening sometime this summer.

Need to prioritize ‘hot spots’

Now, the challenge on both sides of the border is ensuring younger age groups sign on for their shots.

As Chagla points out, seniors are typically retired, with no small children, meaning they’re likely not interacting as much with others as younger adults who may be going to work and dropping kids off at school or daycare— two settings where virus transmission can happen.

“As we start to get vaccines into people who transmit … you’ll see the effect on cases as the last big step,” he said.

And vaccinations in hot spots where infection rates are high should be a priority, Jha said.

Lower-income communities, which are often home to many essential workers and people of colour, have been hard-hit throughout the pandemic, suggesting those areas need more access to vaccines, according to Chagla, who stressed the benefits to those vulnerable groups and for Canada’s vaccination rollout as a whole.

“Herd immunity works well if people are spaced out in the population, not clumped together,” he said.

san romanoway apartments covid vaccination
Health-care workers from Mount Sinai Hospital administer the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to residents of Toronto’s northwest Jane and Finch neighbourhood at a temporary clinic this week. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

Efforts underway to reach hard-hit communities 

In Toronto, where surging cases are overwhelming local hospitals, fewer people in neighbourhoods at the highest risk for COVID-19 infections have been vaccinated than residents in more well-off, lower-risk communities.

That is starting to shift, however, with Ontario now prioritizing hot spots. Vaccines are being offered to people aged 18 and up in certain postal codes, and local hospitals and community agencies are working on the ground to get shots in arms.

At one highrise apartment complex in the Toronto’s northwest end, health-care workers from Humber River Hospital went floor to floor and door to door earlier this week, bringing vaccinations to anyone willing to get one.

“One, two, three — ouch, ouch, ouch,” Dr. Nathalie Adabachi, a family physician, said from behind her surgical mask and face shield as she vaccinated a senior resident sitting in a chair outside her apartment door.

Adabachi says getting to the sources of the most infections could create the “biggest difference.”

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