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Vaccines can't be 'only tool' preventing COVID infections: disease specialist

Dr. Lisa Barrett says people with two doses of vaccine will 'pretty much' not be protected from getting infected with Omicron
COVID vaccine
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As Omicron case numbers continue climbing across Nova Scotia, a Halifax infectious disease specialist wants to remind people that vaccines can't be the only tool that's used to prevent COVID-19 infections.

"Vaccines, ideally, cut down on becoming infected," Dalhousie University's Dr. Lisa Barrett said. "But their primary goal, particularly at times like this, is to prevent going to hospital, getting really sick or death.

"These vaccines, particularly as we get into adding on an extra dose, do seem to maintain their ability to keep people out of hospital or from becoming exquisitely ill."

She told CityNews Halifax that the vaccines haven't been as effective in preventing those situations compared to when the Delta variant was widespread, but that they're still "very worthwhile" and a better option than death.

On Jan. 7, Nova Scotia reported that 48 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 while seven were in the ICU. Fourty-four of those patients were admitted during the Omicron wave.

COVID-19 cases in the province have also been surging over the last few weeks due to the Omicron variant.

Nova Scotia's dashboard, which was last updated on Friday, estimates there are more than 6,600 active cases in the province.

The province reported 1,145 new COVID-19 cases on Jan. 8. On Jan. 9, Nova Scotia reported 837 new cases.

"No one ever said that the vaccine was going to completely prevent infection," Dr. Barrett said. "And with Omicron, it does seem that two doses of vaccine are pretty much not going to protect you from getting infected.

"The vaccines are still very good at preventing death and hospitalization, so please don't lose faith in that."

However, she wants everyone to understand that vaccines can't be the only tool that's used to help protect vulnerable people from getting infected.

Instead, there needs to be a focus on ensuring COVID-19 case numbers remain low in communities.

"We have to be diligent," she said. "We can't just use vaccines as our control tool."

Last week, Nova Scotia opened up booster shot appointments to people over the age of 30 who've gone more than six months past their second dose.

While around 92,000 appointments were quickly filled up, Premier Tim Houston said more appointments will be coming soon.

People should also be keeping their social circles small and their gatherings infrequent as well as following the province's current restrictions. Those include a 10-person limit for informal indoor gatherings.

Moreover, testing should be used when necessary to ensure people aren't spreading the virus.

Currently, only some groups of people can get PCR tests since the province is handling a spike in testing. The eligibility list includes people who are older than 50, people who live in congregate settings and pregnant people.

"As we go forward through a couple of more respiratory seasons like this winter, many of us are going to be exposed to this virus," Dr. Barrett said. "That also helps to add to our complexity and the education of our immune system."

While it's currently unpredictable how many series of COVID-19 vaccines people will be required to receive, Dr. Barrett said people will get a more "sophisticated immune response" to the virus which will dictate the future of the vaccine.

"Could it become a yearly vaccine for a few years or maybe forever? There's potential for that, I would say," she said. "Does that mean that's a failure of vaccines? Nope, it just means we've got a virus that's on the move."


Chris Stoodley

About the Author: Chris Stoodley

Chris was born and raised in Halifax. After graduating from the journalism program at King's, he started as CityNews Halifax's weekend editor.
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