There was no national celebration or symbolic victory lap this weekend as Canada notched a significant milestone, fully vaccinating about 50% of its population and surpassing the US vaccination rate for Covid-19.
According to Health Canada, nearly 70% of Canadians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, putting the country very close to the 75% threshold public health authorities here say is needed to approach herd immunity.
Still, caution is the word on the lips of nearly every public health official and politician.
“We’re going to continue to move forward in a thoughtful and responsible way but the fact is people need to continue to get vaccinated with their second doses and those who’ve been hesitant need to get their first doses,“ said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during an infrastructure announcement outside of Toronto.
Canada’s punishing third wave of Covid-19 burdened hospitals this spring and exhausted frontline healthcare workers and it is still a vivid memory for many, even though the country is now logging only a few hundred cases of Covid-19 per day.
And vaccine scarcity, until recently, left millions of Canadians feeling anxious and exposed.
“Like people said in March, it was like the Hunger Games (for vaccines), hospital systems were crashing, and the supply wasn’t there,” said Andrew Young of Vaccine Hunters Canada in an interview with CNN adding, “right now, I can tell you I’m a lot more relaxed.”
Young founded a grassroots organization in March helping to find vaccines for Canadians as the scramble to get vaccinated was well underway. Millions of Canadians were still in lockdown in early spring as they watched their American neighbors get vaccinated and begin a more normal life.
Vaccine Hunters Canada says it uses the IT and social media skills of about 100 volunteers to connect Canadians with vaccines.
“I think our real niche was hope, if I could put it that way. There wasn’t much hope in terms of the constant lockdowns, increase in cases, closed down schools. So, to me, Vaccine Hunters represented hope and the niche that it filled is that it connected all the provinces with its rollout strategies so we had a consolidated platform for Canadians nationwide,” said Young.
While the federal government procured and paid for vaccine doses, administering the vaccines was done by individual provinces and territories.
For Young, one night a few weeks ago stands out when a vaccine clinic in a Toronto suburb messaged the organization at 1 a.m. saying there were a few dozen vaccine doses leftover. Vaccine Hunters Canada put the word out on social media and every dose was administered late into the night.
“I still see us as pretty important in terms of helping get the word out, helping amplify the voices of certain groups who needs a little boost,” said Young, adding that the "last percentage" will need more creative strategies as Canada confronts its own vaccine hesitancy.
While Canada says it has procured more doses per capita than most countries around the world, the bulk of doses were not delivered until later in spring. Canada still has no significant vaccine manufacturing capacity although the Trudeau government has promised to fund more domestic vaccine production by 2022.
Vaccine uptake was not politicized in Canada and the vast majority of political leaders did all they could to get shots in arms. Still, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has been warning for weeks that vaccine hesitancy could keep Canada from achieving the herd immunity it needs to fight the virus.
In a recent statement she encouraged Canadians to share "credible" Covid-19 information and warned earlier this month that not enough younger Canadians were "offering their arms" for vaccinations.
Still, Canada is now confident enough to open it borders to visitors for the first time in 16 months.
Beginning Aug. 9, fully vaccinated citizens and permanent residents of the United States and only those currently residing in the US will be permitted to enter Canada. Nonessential travel into Canada has been banned since March 2020, something the Canadian government said was necessary to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
International travelers may also be allowed to enter Canada beginning Sept. 7, provided that the "COVID-19 epidemiology remains favorable," the Canadian government said in statement released Monday.
Entry to Canada will continue to be prohibited for all foreign travelers who are not fully vaccinated.