Jun 14, 2024

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits a vaccination site in Montréal, Quebec on July 15, 2021. Photo by Adam Scotti (PMO)

(This is Part 34 of Dr. Pagtakhan’s column, Medisina at Politika in Pilipino Express.)

Editor’s Note: In February 2020, CF Net started publishing Dr. Rey Pagtakhan’s Commentary on COVID-19. Now on Part 34 of his running commentary, Dr. Pagtakhan has kept the Filipino community and other CF Net readers continually informed about 1) the pandemic and its impact, 2) the scientific advances on drugs and vaccines, and 3) the effectiveness of public health responses, including mass vaccination, as a vital step to individual protection and development of community or herd immunity. Also, it helps counter myths and disinformation.

The federal election has just been called for September 20 as this issue of my Commentary goes to the press. As with any election, Federal Election Day 2021 will summarize the collective voice of Canadians on the major issues in front of the nation. One dominant issue or question relates to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, would Canadians be best served by a majority or a minority government at this juncture of the ongoing pandemic? And as a corollary, which political party would best deliver on it? The topic of this current Commentary,  “A Critical Time for Children and A Must for Vaccine Certificate,” offers one timely issue to consider.

US President Joe Biden, while applauding local leaders and knocking governors with anti-mask directives, said: "To the mayors, school superintendents, educators, local leaders who are standing up to the governors politicizing mask protection for our kids: Thank God that we have heroes like you…This isn't about politics—this is about keeping our children safe." [Source: Quote of the Dayby Lauren Dezenski,  CNN News, August 12, 2021.]

Lamentably, Canada has its share of political leaders – fortunately only a few – who are not fully supportive of all public health guidance (wearing of mask, test, track, and isolation measures). Worse, there is a small minority of people who not only refuse to get vaccinated but also deliberately spread in the social media disinformation messages about the virus, vaccines and vaccination. In addition, they co-mingle unmasked with others and pose a health threat to them, including to children who cannot protect themselves.


A Dangerous Environment for American Children

Indeed, unvaccinated unmasked American adults are the major source of the current surge of COVID cases, including in children, in many states with low vaccination rates such as in Florida, Missouri, Louisiana and Texas. Alarming news reports coming from these states tell of “children are suffering,” “nurses and pediatricians are exhausted,” and of “a baby girl with Covid-19 was airlifted 150 miles because of Houston hospital bed shortage.”Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas is quoted: “We have not seen kids pile into pediatric ICUs across the South like we’re seeing right now.” Said Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatric vaccine specialist from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a vaccine adviser to the US Food and Drug Administration: “(unvaccinated unmasked) adults have really let our children down.”

The circumstances identified below help define why the current situation in America is a dangerous environment for their children (Madeline Holcombe. CNN News. August 11, 2021):

  1. The contagious Delta variants continue to surge and mutate in the southern US states;
  2. There is no vaccine approved for those under the age of 12;
  3. Those who go to school and daycare will be gathering closely together during their classroom and play activities;
  4. The schools and daycare centers may not have upgraded their building ventilation system;
  5. Full vaccination among the vaccine-eligible 12-year-and-over population has not reached yet the desired goal;
  6. Children may come from homes in regions and communities with low vaccination rates;
  7. Response to wearing masks and getting vaccinated has become deeply politically polarized; and
  8. More so now than last year, children develop serious diseases requiring hospitalization and ICU admission for life-support.


What is the Situation with Canadian Children?

The American situation gives us a picture of what could be in front of Canadians. In fact, Canada’s Public Health Agency has only recently announced that the Delta-driven fourth pandemic wave is underway. Since extreme contagiousness is a defining hallmark of the Delta, does this mean the country is facing an imminent COVID wildfire?

As though in response to what awaits us, senior health reporter Andre Picard made the observation in his opinion piece, Brace yourself for more COVID-19 nastiness(Globe and Mail, August 9, 2021) that “the much-dreaded fourth wave of COVID-19…could be the toughest one yet…we’re going to experience a new kind of nasty, with a lot more children and young adults getting sick and hospitalized than in earlier waves.”

At the same time, Canada has not experienced the same magnitude of the pediatric alarm being experienced in the US due in large part to the high vaccination rate we have in Canada (see Vaccination Status below) with the two mRNA vaccines that are highly protective even against the Delta variants. Another possible explanation is the lesser partisan divide we have compared to the US.

While I share the optimism that the overall Canadian situation would not be devastating, I am cautious and concerned about the situation with our children under the age of 12. They are unvaccinated because there is yet no approved vaccine for them. And they are returning to schools next month a necessity for their overall development. This age-group of children depends, therefore,  on older children and adults eligible for vaccination – the potential transmitters of the virus – to have theirs as soon as possible. This situation also underscores the point that all safety precautions must be in place for unvaccinated non-vaccine-eligible children.

Thus, I consider the situation with Canadian children under 12years of age challenging and, therefore, merits our critical attention. This means we should all acknowledge that masking, physical distancing, smaller class sizes, adequate ventilation system and, when indicated, isolation, contact tracing and testing all serve their useful purposes as we navigate the fourth wave. Most importantly, get fully vaccinated so that we can protect our nation’s children.


Current Vaccination Status(CTV News, August 12, 2021) and Implications

Canada’s percentage of fully vaccinated is 62.6% of the total population or 71.2% of the eligible 12-year-of-age-and-over population for whom vaccines are approved for use. The corresponding figures for the partially vaccinated are higher, but I have excluded them in this discussion since partial vaccination offers protection below the acceptable regulatory threshold.  We shall consider them for what they are – the necessary step to full vaccination.

While the statistics for the fully vaccinated in Canada compare better than in the USA and in most other countries, certain rural and remote areas in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are reporting full vaccination rates as low as only 16.00%. Since our country’s full vaccination target has been placed higher at 90.00% of the total population to effectively confront the extreme contagiousness of the dominant Delta variants and the emerging Delta variant plus, these rural and remote regions in the prairies are particularly at much greater risk of full-blown resurgence as the Delta-driven fourth wave makes its spread. Hence, the greater threats to the area residents and to the control of the pandemic


The Unvaccinated versus the Fully Vaccinated

Difficulty accessing the vaccines, religious beliefs and disinformation are some of the common reasons that keep residents from getting vaccinated. The first is more amenable to finding a solution such as establishing a neighbourhood vaccine hub to 1) establish a community presence, 2) be available to answer questions, 3) provide vaccine information, and 4) administer vaccinations as the Ottawa Public Health has done with success in increasing vaccination numbers (Josh Pringle. CTV News Ottawa. August 11, 2021).

The latter two reasons would require more intensive countermeasures, including repeated public reporting on the proportion of all new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths coming from the unvaccinated, partially vaccinated and fully vaccinated. For example, Saskatchewan reported last month that "more than 90% of all new cases and hospitalizations were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people; 95% of ICU admissions were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated; and 100 per cent of deaths were unvaccinated." These figures are consistent with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data that show full vaccination has provided the following:

  1. an 8-fold reduction in people getting the disease;
  2. a 25-fold reduction in both Covid-19 related hospitalizations for serious disease; and
  3. a 25-fold reduction Covid-19 related deaths.

Also, the American experience has shown that virtually all (99.99%) of their fully vaccinated have not had a deadly Covid-19 breakthrough case.


Meeting the Full Vaccination Target

At the current status of vaccination, 27.4% of the total population (that is, 10,413,435 of 38,005,238 Canadians) or 18.8% of the eligible population (that is,7,144,984 Canadians) have yet to receive their full vaccination to reach our national target of 90%. The current figures reflect approximately 6.5 million more Canadians were vaccinated during the last half month. This is a positive development. At this current pace of vaccination, it appears Canada can reach its target of 90% full vaccination coverage by the time Fall begins.


Flattening the Fourth Wave

Admittedly, even full vaccination cannot completely prevent transmission. Be that as it may,

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam felt the fourth wave could be flattened, depending on how successful the country is in hastening full vaccination coverage and on how the tempo and extent of reopening steps. We are poised to reach 90% coverage before Fall starts.

My preceding Commentary discussed the challenges posed by, among others,  1) re-opening of borders to international travels without regards to vaccination status of incoming passengers; 2) reopening in the Fall of schools and colleges without requiring full vaccination for all; 3) public health measures failing to reckon with the intermingling of non-vaccinated and vaccinated populations in designated settings prone to crowding and large gatherings; 4) absence clear protocols for safety in healthcare and related settings, and 5) unavailability of approved vaccines for children under 12 years old.

In the intervening half month, it appears a number of provinces – although not all – have moved in the right direction to address the afore-mentioned challenges. Included was the announcement by pharmaceutical vaccine developers that vaccines for those under 12 years of age may soon be ready for emergency use approval.


Vaccine Certificate and Vaccine Passport as Proof of Vaccination – A Necessity

For greater clarity, proof of vaccination for the purpose of international travel is here best called a “vaccine passport,” while one for the purpose of verifying the status of a full vaccination as may be required in doing certain jobs and entering  certain places that would make unvaccinated people co-mingle with many and in close contact with vulnerable people such as in healthcare and daycare settings; long-term and elder care institutions; schools, colleges and universities; in public safety work (police, firefighters, and military); non-essential businesses (bars, restaurants, gyms); entertainment shows (theatre, concerts)and sports facilities is best called “vaccination certificate.”

In the opinion piece, The time for debating COVID-19 vaccine passports is over, published in the July 26, 2021 issue of theGlobe and Mail, Andre Picard persuasively made the case for a mandatory vaccination certificate and passport. The same paper’s subsequent editorial,  Yes to vaccine mandates. Yes to vaccine passports, of August 12, 2021 re-echoed the same conclusion, citing historical precedence, similar regulatory examples in other areas, and equivalent rationale for the protection of Canadians, individually and collectively. They underscored the need for “verifiable, secure, standardized, accessible and portable” documentation that is focused on clarity, simplicity and fairness and urgently adopted as time is of the essence.



Getting fully vaccinated and having government-sanctioned documented proof of it NOW – a vaccine certificate and vaccine passport - can be the difference between wellness and illness, between a mild disease manageable at home and a more severe type requiring hospitalization and ICU admission for life-support, or between life and death for oneself, loved ones, neighbours, co-workers or unknown contacts in the community. Acting NOW on both necessities would certainly significantly lower if not eliminate the danger of the pandemic environment children are in. We owe it to them who cannot protect themselves.

Editor's note: Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan, P.C., O.M., LL.D., Sc.D., M.D. M.Sc. is a retired lung specialist, professor of child health, author of articles and chapters in medical journals and textbooks, and a former health critic, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, and cabinet minister, including Secretary of State for Science, Research and Development. He graduated from the University of the Philippines, did postgraduate training and studies at the Children’s Hospitals of Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and spent a sabbatical year as Visiting Professor at the University of Arizona Medical Center. In June 2003, he spoke on “The Global Threat of Infectious Diseases” at the G-8 Science Ministers/Advisors Carnegie Group Meeting in Berlin.

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