We've hit our 75-per-cent vaccination goal. So what? It's no 'magic bullet'

Nearly a month later than its original target of Aug. 2, New Brunswick has hit the milestone of having 75 per cent of all eligible residents fully vaccinated. (Shane Magee/CBC - image credit)
Nearly a month later than its original target of Aug. 2, New Brunswick has hit the milestone of having 75 per cent of all eligible residents fully vaccinated. (Shane Magee/CBC - image credit)

Finally, New Brunswick's "drive for 75" has reached the finish line.

Almost a month late, the province has hit its former COVID-19 vaccination target: 75 per cent of the population aged 12 and up now has now had two doses.

And getting there means absolutely nothing.

"From an epidemiological perspective, everyone grab a piece of cake and celebrate, but nothing on the ground has really changed," said Halifax epidemiologist Kevin Wilson.

Earlier this summer, the 75 per cent target was a rallying cry, an exhortation, a common goal, a shared mission.

If we — could — just — get — there by Aug. 2, we were told, the situation would be safe enough for public health restrictions to be lifted and life to return to something close to normal.

Then Premier Blaine Higgs announced on July 23 that he wouldn't wait for us to get to 75 per cent after all. He'd lift the restrictions a week later, whether we made it or not.

The target lost its meaning in terms of being free from COVID-19 restrictions like masks and social distancing.

And it was always just as meaningless from an epidemiological perspective, Wilson said.

"That 74.99 per cent and that 75 per cent are not meaningfully different from each other, aside from the handful of people who got vaccinated to push you across that line," he said.

Submitted by Kevin Wilson
Submitted by Kevin Wilson

Did target ever matter?

While more vaccinations are good, and higher rates means higher collective protection, the crossing of any particular threshold is not significant itself.

"We must aim above and beyond that goal," Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said last week, despite the fact the 75 per cent threshold still appears as a bold green line on the provincial COVID-19 dashboard's vaccination graph.

And in Monday's news release, Shephard referred to the new numbers as "wonderfully encouraging news" and a "significant accomplishment."

Seventy-five per cent was considered enough coverage for herd immunity from "the traditional version of the virus" but not from its variants, according to deputy chief medical officer of health Dr. Cristin Muecke.

In fact, Public Health is no longer identifying any ideal percentage of people who should be vaccinated.

"It's the same issue we would have had with the 75," she said during a briefing last week. "There's no magic bullet associated with that number or probably any other number."

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Earlier this summer, Fredericton software engineer Oliver Dueck's Twitter account became a must-follow, thanks to his daily vaccination update and his projection of when the province would hit 75 per cent.

But once restrictions were lifted, a lot of the suspense went out of his daily tracking.

"It was always somewhat of an arbitrary target," said Dueck.

"I think it's interesting from the perspective that we set this [early] August date to hit 75 per cent. … It's interesting to make that comparison, but I don't think it's a hugely relevant number anymore."

Losing the lead on vaccination rates

It's impossible to know for sure, but the dropping of the 75-per-cent threshold for the lifting of restrictions may itself have had public health consequences.

Premier Blaine Higgs acknowledged the possibility that eliminating that incentive may be partly responsible for the slowing pace of vaccinations.

"It may have," he said recently. "I guess I wouldn't deny that. People would have said 'OK, we must be fine.'"

The pace has slowed so much that New Brunswick, which once led the Atlantic provinces for vaccinations, is now the laggard. We are also eighth among all provinces for second-dose coverage.

Dueck said he's mystified why the rate of second doses is so much slower than the rate of first doses at its peak.

As of Friday, he calculated that more than 48,000 people had had first shots at least 28 days earlier — the recommended interval — but had still not had second doses.

Still, officials said last week they're starting to see an increase in the number of people booking appointments online, suggesting numbers will keep ticking upward.

They'd better, said University of Ottawa epidemiologist Dr. Raywat Deonandan.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

"There is a sufficiently large number of non-immunized people that the disease can still create a fair amount of chaos and suffering," he said.

With the delta variant, "we likely need 85 or 90 per cent or higher of the total population before we can have the herd immunity conversation."

But nailing down a firm new target would require more experience with and knowledge of the virus, Muecke said, like Public Health has with diseases such as the measles.

"For the purpose of public participation, we need people to know that we need as many of them to roll up their sleeves as possible."

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