By Linda Silas
Today, Canada’s largest nurses’ organization has taken the unusual step of launching a national campaign encouraging members of the public to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
COVID-19 cases aren’t just numbers on the news: they are patients nurses see every day getting sicker and sicker, many dying. The number of patients in Canadian hospitals and ICUs are reaching record highs, even as health care workers are reaching their breaking point.
Despite this reality, polls suggest that vaccine hesitancy remains a major issue among a significant percentage of Canada’s population. In the midst of a pandemic characterized by unpredictability, speculation and misinformation, this is perhaps not surprising.
To help tackle vaccine myths and mistrust, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions has launched a campaign informed by facts and guided by empathy. The campaign features a light-hearted public service announcement, social media advertisements and website where the public can access information, pledge to get vaccinated, and easily share with friends and family.
As nurses, we believe that everyone should understand the benefits and potential risks of immunization by accessing reliable information. Nurses know that the vaccines administered in Canada are safe, tested, and our best shot at getting out of this pandemic and back to the activities we’ve put on hold for a year – like seeing our loved ones.
History has shown us that viruses can be defeated with a successful vaccination effort.
Fifty years ago, vaccines were instrumental in helping the West successfully eradicate polio. Polio was known as “infantile paralysis” because the virus could permanently damage the nerve cells that controlled the muscles. Polio impacted thousands of Canadians and was the most serious epidemic Canada had experienced since the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Canada was finally certified “polio-free” in 1994. The disease was brought under control in the early 1970s through the widespread use of the Salk vaccine, introduced in 1955, and the Sabin oral vaccine, introduced in 1962. The last major polio epidemic in Canada occurred in 1959.
Like polio, COVID-19 is a novel disease about which we knew little only a year ago. In a very short period, we have developed several vaccines that have proven effective in clinical trials involving tens of thousands of participants. The trials resulted in high rates of protection with few or no reported serious side effects. Despite the compressed timelines, COVID-19 vaccines were rigorously tested to ensure their safety.
Since then, the results of the vaccine rollout across the globe have been closely monitored. Real-world evidence is bearing out the results of the initial clinical trials. In countries where large proportions of the population have been vaccinated, COVID-19 cases are dropping overall. In Canada’s long-term care sector, where vaccination was prioritized, we are now seeing a dramatic drop in the number of deaths.
The efficacy rate of each vaccine varies, but ultimately, what matters is that all the vaccines substantially decrease the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death.
Contrary to what some eye-catching headlines might suggest, there have been very few adverse reactions to the vaccines that have been approved so far in Canada. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization and Health Canada continue to monitor new vaccines and update their guidance based on the evidence.
At the same time as we roll out the vaccines in Canada, we are in a race against the variants of concern – especially the B117 variant, first identified in the UK. B117 is now the most common variant in Canada and is rapidly becoming the dominant strain in many places. It is more transmissible and can cause more severe infections than the original strain. Uncontrolled, this strain has the potential to hospitalize and kill more people, including those in their thirties, forties and fifties.
A COVID-free future is within our reach – a future where it’s safe to hug again and where our smiles no longer need to be hidden behind a mask. However, getting there will require a significant portion of Canada’s population – roughly 75 to 90 percent – get vaccinated.
As with polio, it will take unified effort to defeat COVID-19. It’s up to all of us to seek out credible, reliable information about the COVID-19 vaccines and make an informed choice.
Together, we can defeat COVID-19 and get back to our regular lives. All it takes is three simple steps: find out when it’s your turn, get your vaccine and share this information with your friends and family.
I encourage everyone to visit the campaign website, TrustNurses.ca, to learn more.
Linda Silas is the President of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and a former ICU nurse.