Vaccination is an essential defence against COVID-19, particularly for kids as they head back to school this week, but it shouldn't be the only precaution taken, according to a University of Saskatchewan virologist.
Everyone should take several basic safety measures to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, said Angela Rasmussen, an expert in emerging global viruses at the U of S Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO).
People should limit indoor contacts, use high-quality masks and pick up a box of free rapid tests to deal with the latest wave of the pandemic, she said.
Rasmussen spoke to Saskatoon Morning host Leisha Grebinski.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
CBC: We're facing a fifth wave here driven by the Omicron variant. Why is a booster shot so important?
Rasmussen: The booster shot, it turns out, is really important in terms of reducing your risk of contracting Omicron and also making sure that your protection against severe disease remains high. Some studies have shown that two doses of the vaccine provide pretty good protection against severe illness.
It's good news in the sense that there is still protection against severe disease, but they found that with a booster shot, it also improved protection against getting infected in the first place, taking it back up to about 70 per cent. And it really did boost the protection against severe disease back up into that 90 per cent range. Getting a booster shot will also improve the protection you have that will help keep you out of the hospital if you do happen to have a breakthrough case.
CBC: There are some skeptics who are asking: 'If the vaccine is not 100 per cent effective against the virus, why get it?'
Rasmussen: Well, as I mentioned, a vaccine will keep you out of the hospital. Ideally, we don't want to get infected at all, but there are lots and lots of vaccines that don't provide 100 per cent protection against infection. The inactivated polio vaccine is a great example of that. The purpose of vaccines really is to prevent people from getting sick, to prevent disease. It's not necessarily to prevent infection.
Now it's very nice, of course, when a vaccine does provide what we call sterilizing protection, meaning that it prevents you from getting infected. But the real key here is if you do get infected, that vaccine will allow your body to fight off the virus very quickly, and that will keep you from getting very, very sick. So in that sense, the vaccines are still doing what they're supposed to be doing. And. as I mentioned before, a booster shot will increase your protection against getting infected in the first place as well.
CBC: Now let's talk about the naming of a booster shot a third dose. What's the difference between calling it a dose and and a booster? How common are three dose vaccines?
Rasmussen: Well, the three dose vaccines are extremely common, and I think this is also something that a lot of people have had questions about. People want to know, are we going to have to be getting boosters every six months, every three months for the rest of our lives? And the answer to that is probably not. There are a number of vaccines that we get throughout our lives and especially in childhood that are three-dose or sometimes four-dose vaccines — the HPV vaccine, the Hepatitis B vaccine, the inactivated polio vaccine, the MMR vaccine. I could go on and on and on.
It's very, very common for vaccines to basically require three or four doses. And the reason for that is vaccines are essentially like a class for your immune system. They're training your immune system to recognize a specific virus or pathogen. In this case, if you send your immune system to multiple classes, then it's going to be better equipped to recognize that virus once it encounters it in the real world. And that appears to be the situation with our COVID vaccines now.
CBC: I've heard a lot of people say it's just a matter of time until they become infected with COVID. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on that. Is it inevitable or should we try to do everything we can to avoid getting it?
Rasmussen: Well, I think we should continue trying to do everything we can to avoid getting it. I think that we're not getting rid of this virus any time and we're not going to be able to eliminate it. And there are still billions of people who are unvaccinated worldwide, so the virus isn't going away. However, that doesn't mean that we should just throw up our hands in resignation and say: 'I'm going to get it, might as well get it over with.'
I'm still taking as many precautions as I can. My university is also taking those precautions. We're having remote classes until Jan. 24th, and many schools and people are not coming onto campus unless they're actually required to be there. I think that I'm going to continue to take as many precautions as I can. I'm going to wear N95 masks when I'm at work or out in public. I'm going to be limiting my trips outside of my household to things that are absolutely necessary.
The fact that Omicron is so infectious and it's spreading so rapidly, including among vaccinated people, means that even if the percentage of people that need hospital care is lower overall, there will still be a lot of people in terms of absolute numbers that are going to the hospital and requiring care. And we've just finished our own devastating Delta wave. We know what it's like when hospitals in our province get overwhelmed. I don't want to contribute to that if I can possibly help it.
CBC: We've got children heading back to school and, of course, there are still those kids under five who are not yet eligible for any vaccine. Do you have any final thoughts on those issues?
Rasmussen: This is a really, really tough decision that I think a lot of parents are trying to make right now. It clearly is important that kids have access to school and that in-person learning is really something that can't be substituted completely with remote learning. I would say if you're going to send your children back and they're over the age of five, make sure that they're fully vaccinated as soon as possible. Make sure they have high-quality masks that form a seal around the mouth and nose.
And you know, you can go to a public library here in Saskatoon and pick up rapid tests. Use those rapid tests frequently, especially on your kids. And just try to add as many layers of mitigation as you possibly can. If teachers are going to have students in person, they should try to implement physical distancing. The more of those precautions that you can apply in any situation, including schools, the safer your kids are going to be.