What if we all get Covid-19? Why vaccines are the cure to contagion

Photo: Ivan Diaz

The Covid-19 pandemic has been in full swing for over a year now in Canada. Early on, many questions circulated among the population about the new virus and what we, as a society, should do to counteract its harmful effects. 

At this point, Covid-19 has become the most studied virus in history; entire armies of scientists and doctors have gone to extraordinary lengths to understand how the virus works how to prevent its spread. Over 74000 studies have been done over the past year in what can only be described as a global, collective counter-attack of scientific inquiry.

Many questions have been answered, too. We learned early on that masks have an important role to play in reducing spread. We know much more about the airborne transmission and mechanics of respiratory viruses. We’ve also learned much about how people react to such global threats, with many retreating from reality and turning to conspiratorial thinking.

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So what has happened here in Canada, One year in? As a resident of BC, I will focus mainly on how Covid-19 has affected us in this province. I do believe that there is enough similarity throughout Canada that these results can be generalized pretty well.

Transmitting terrible ideas

There is a relatively small (yet loud) class of people who would like to see us reach herd immunity through “natural infection.” That means without a vaccine and simply allowing the virus to circulate through the population freely. I’m looking at you, anti-vaxxers and supporters of the so-called Great Barrington Declaration.

These types of people tend to think that those aged under 60 are “low risk” and therefore shouldn’t worry too much about getting the virus. Typically they want to simply focus on protecting the elderly while allowing the rest of society to continue as normal. Details are lacking of how they would actually achieve this, unfortunately. The hundreds of long-term care outbreaks prove how difficult it is to only isolate one group of people who require many different services that require interacting with others in close proximity.

Either way, the data shows that this “young people are low risk” narrative is simply not the case. Sure they are much lower risk than the elderly, but there are far too many harmful effects for this to be plausible. A thought experiment can gives us imperfect, although still useful, information to assess whether or not this is true. We simply have to ask the following:

What would happen if we let all BC residents contract the virus?

In short: death, destruction, the apocalypse, and possibly the second coming of Christ. Okay, maybe not, but still. 

What does the data reveal?

BCCDC’s weekly situation report (week 11, table 4) breaks down, by age, how many hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths have happened in the province. The trends of these data points have been fairly consistent throughout the pandemic. We can extrapolate this data to the whole population – with caveats – to get a very rough idea of what is truly possible with this virus.

If we extrapolate this data to the whole population this what we get:

Data taken from BCCDC situation report: week 11, table 4. Figures were taken from the table and extrapolated as if the entire population had Covid-19. For each age group, cases would be equal to total population.

Before getting into the major caveat, we get a wrong, but rough estimate of 97224 total deaths in BC highlighted in red. This is an overestimation though, for one very obvious reason: there are many asymptomatic cases that aren’t caught through our contact tracing system.

During the first wave, it was estimated that there were about “8 times more infections than reported cases.” So while it was reported that BC had about 2500 cases by the end of May 2020, the true number was probably closer to 20,000. This was for the simple reason that our contact tracing system was simply not in place. It had not been ramped up to a level that could adequately trace every infection – it was a brand new pandemic after all.

This all changed very quickly though. By November 2020, Canadian Blood Services reported that BC had about a 1.5% infection rate thanks to antibody testing. This means that about 77,000 people BC had been infected, while the reported number at the time was about 33,000. So our contact tracing system has started to catch up, with about half of infections being caught.

So, looking at the table above, it’s obvious that our 97,000 potential deaths in BC are way off. This is why I added two more additional rows at the bottom of the graph: One for the scenario of the first wave in which we caught 1/8 of all infections and one for later on when we caught about 1/2 of all infections.

Remember, the exact numbers here are not what is important. What is important is getting a rough idea of what could happen if Covid-19 is left to circulate freely. 

A crucial point is that the first wave was much smaller than the second (and current third) wave. So the more realistic number is probably closer to about half of all infections recorded, not 1/8. This gives us a total of about 48000 potential deaths in BC, and a whopping 174,000 hospitaliztions. That’s pretty staggering.

Photo: Spencer Davis

Aren’t most of these deaths of the elderly?

In short, yes but there are far too many younger deaths and hospitalizations too. Two additional columns were added to the right of the graph to see how this would pan out in the scenario that we have only recorded about 1/2 of all infections. While deaths are fairly low from the 0-50 age group, from there they take off. 

The common claim from covid-deniers is that most of those that die from Covid-19 are already close to dying anyway. Here we can see that is simply not true. There could easily be 2000+ deaths in the 60 and below group

From age 60-70 there could easily be 5000 deaths and would be very tragic; these people can hardly be considered to be on their death bed.

Hospitalizations matter too

It gets worse with hospitalizations. In the 1/2 all cases recorded scenario, we are easily seeing 40,000 hospitalizations in the below 60 age group alone. Tell me, do you think that could overwhelm our hospitals? Sure, if you’re under 60 you might survive, but do you really want a respiratory illness severe enough to be hospitalized? Or worse, sent to an intensive care unit?

Once hospitals have been overwhelmed, as is already the case in some lower mainland hospitals exceeding capacity, the number of deaths will increase. Hospital workers will become more strained and will have to stop admitting new patients. Did you just get into a car wreck? Sorry, we’re full here, find somewhere else.

It is often claimed by covid-deniers that BC has thousands of unused beds. This is true, but the number of beds doesn’t matter. New, temporary beds can be built fairly easily but will do nothing if there is not enough staff to take care of an influx of thousands of new patients. 

A 2015 study found that Canada-wide, there are about 3100 hospital ICU beds capable of invasive ventilation. In BC that number is about 300-400, with many regions hours away from these resources. The threat of overwhelming our hospital system is very real.

A way out, back to normal life.

Again the point here must be made clear: the exact numbers of potential deaths and hospitalizations are not the point here. There are other people out there much smarter and more knowledgeable than I that can get much more accurate numbers. The point is simply to grasp the scale of what is possible with Covid-19. This data puts to shame any idea of “natural herd immunity” or that “only the elderly need to be cautious.”

One simple fact that anti-vaxxers and covid-deniers miss is that while some death rates may seem small, a small percentage of a big number is still a big number. The total death rate of Covid-19 seems to be around 0.5 percent, although this depends on many factors. But 0.5% of 5 million is still 25000 deaths.

This is not just relevant to those of us in BC. The numbers may be different as BC does have an older population than other provinces, but the problem – and solution – remains the same across Canada and the rest of the world too.

Luckily there is a way out of all of this. Take a vaccine as soon as you can. Take whichever is available to you. If you have any type of health issues in which the vaccine might cause harm to you, then consult a doctor.

Historically, vaccines have arguably been one of the biggest success stories of of the human race – and the story of Covid-19 will be no different. Vaccines have been responsible for saving the lives of millions of people around the world, as Infectious Disease doctor Lynora Saxinger points out:

Real-world data has shown very conclusively that vaccines are safe, and as more people get vaccinated transmission of the novel coronavirus from person to person is slowing down. All vaccines have been proven effective at their main goal: Preventing severe hospitalization and death.

Just get a damn vaccine.

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