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Vaccine cards ‘really strong measure’ but masks should stay to slow COVID spread: UBC prof

As a ‘fairly mild imposition,’ Sarah Otto says masks should be among the last pandemic measures to be lifted
A disposable face mask is shown attached to a woman’s arm in Old Montreal, Sunday, July 18 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

A University of B.C. professor says that while vaccine cards are a “really strong measures” to decrease COVID spread in the future, current masking policies are essential to lowering cases and hospitalizations right now.

“The mask mandates are what have bent the curve that we’re seeing in British Columbia, starting with the Interior,” said Sarah Otto, a member of the independent BC COVID-19 Modelling Group.

A report released by the group Wednesday (Sept. 1) found that regions in Interior Health, especially the Okanagan, have “slowed substantially” in the growth of new cases. The Central Okanagan area had a mask mandate imposed at the end of July, while COVID measures such as masks and gathering restrictions were brought in for Interior Health on Aug. 20.

Five days later, the mask mandate was extended across B.C. but Otto said that some people in other regions of the province had either never stopped wearing face coverings indoors or had begun to wear them as cases crept up after Step 3 began.

“The B.C.-wide actions may have already started before the mandate and helped to bring down the curve.”

However, the modelling group believes it will take about two weeks to see the impact of measures such as masking or the incoming vaccine cards

The takeaway from that, she said, is that while B.C. may lead much of the world in vaccination rates – more than 84 per cent for first doses and over 76 per cent for second ones – masks are still a necessary part of people’s lives.

“Masks are a layer of protection that should be our last one to give up because they are a fairly mild imposition that helps reduce transmission of this airborne disease,” Otto said. B.C. has had two periods of time with mask mandates since the pandemic began 18 months ago; from mid-November until July 1 of this year and again starting on Aug. 25.

“I do think that even in places that have low case numbers, continuing a mask mandate just to prevent travellers from bringing in COVID from other regions and provinces… is a wise one.”

Otto said that when vaccine cards take effect, she believes they will have a strong effect.

“I think that the vaccine passport is actually a really strong measure and the federal measure, which is going to prevent people from boarding a plane to go to any other province, those are going to be really strong incentives to get vaccinated,” Otto said, noting that immunization certificates for yellow fever have long been required for certain countries in Africa and South America.

“This should be the norm for what we expect to protect social gatherings, restaurants, businesses… if you have a favourite business, support that business by getting vaccinated.”

READ MORE: Will B.C. see a 4th wave? Researcher says it’s a battle of vaccines versus the variants

But while Otto believes that mask mandates should have never been lifted, she said that despite other provinces bringing in vaccine passports sooner – Quebec starting Wednesday, Ontario as of Sept. 22 – B.C.’s later vaccine cards are well timed.

B.C. will require one dose for many non-essential venues and events such as fitness centres, indoor ticketed events and restaurants on Sept. 13, and both doses plus one week as of Oct. 24.

Otto said that her modelling group’s data has shown that even one vaccine dose makes someone almost eight times less likely to end up in the hospital and four times less likely to be infected at all.

“But the key reason that makes sense to me is that we’re seeing that the optimal length of time between vaccine doses is about 12 weeks, eight to 12 weeks,” she said. “So get your first dose as soon as possible and boost after eight weeks.”

However, although the vaccine card won’t be required until Sept. 13, Otto has one message for anyone who is still unvaccinated: “Do it now. Don’t wait until Sept. 12.

If you’ve delayed until Sept. 12, then that’s going to delay this whole process, delay your protection and delay how much your protection will protect those around you.”


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