With the arrival this week of the first COVID-19 vaccine in Canada, many people are eagerly awaiting the rollout of vaccination programs. Others are unsure if the vaccine itself will be effective and safe. Medical officers at the First Nations Health Authority are recommending the COVID vaccine as the best option to protect individuals, their families and their communities.
“Feeling worried or hesitant is completely normal when something is new, however we can be reassured that Health Canada has a thorough approval process that ensures the safety of COVID vaccines, just like for other vaccines and medicines we take routinely," said Dr. Helena Swinkels, an FNHA Medical Officer who specializes in community health.
“It's understandable that some people, especially Indigenous people, may lack trust in the medical system," said Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting Chief Medical Officer of the FNHA. “However, vaccine trials go through rigorous, well-established ethical processes. We can feel assured that vaccines are safe, effective and that they will save lives. "
Vaccines trigger your immune system to protect you from bacteria and viruses that cause illnesses like COVID-19. When you are immune to COVID-19 that means you can be exposed to the virus without becoming infected or, if you do become infected, the vaccine prevents more severe illness.
There are more than 150 COVID-19 vaccines in development around the world. With high levels of government funding to support this work, scientists have been able to develop vaccines quickly by sharing information and working together across countries and building on technology they already use in existing, successful vaccines. Health Canada has prioritized approval of these vaccines, but safety approval processes have not changed. The requirements for safety data in clinical trials are as stringent as ever.
Ensuring Vaccine Safety
Canada has one of the most rigorous regulatory systems in the world to authorize new vaccines. Vaccines are first tested in animals before being studied in humans. Testing in humans is done over three phases of clinical trials. These clinical trials provide crucial information on vaccine safety and effectiveness by testing the vaccine on thousands of volunteers. Health Canada carefully studies these results before approving and then, once a vaccine is approved and in use, vaccine safety is continuously monitored to identify side effects, which may occur rarely.
“The vaccine will not be mandatory. It's up to you whether you want a COVID-19 vaccination," said Dr. McDonald. “However, the benefits of getting the vaccine far outweigh the significant health risks of this disease and the very low likelihood of a serious reaction to a vaccine."
Dr. Swinkels adds: “It's also important to remember that vaccines do more than protect the person getting vaccinated. When enough people get vaccinated, they also protect the people around us who may not be able to get a vaccine. The more people in a community who are vaccinated and protected from COVID-19, the harder it is for this virus to spread."
Vaccination will happen in phases. The sequencing of groups to first receive vaccination is based on how likely a group is to experience severe illness from the infection, like Elders in long-term care. The people needed to care for these populations (such as health care providers in those facilities and in intensive care units and emergency rooms) will also be prioritized. A very small quantity of vaccines arrive in BC this week and will be administered to high-priority populations in the Lower Mainland, where COVID-19 outbreaks are highest. Many more vaccines will be arriving over the next few weeks and months.
Adults in Indigenous communities, where infection can have serious consequences – such as those in remote and rural areas – are among the high-priority populations who will start receiving vaccinations in the New Year – probably sometime in February. Further information will be shared as soon as it's available.
While we all look forward to the arrival of these new vaccines, it is important to remember that to stay safe for now, we need to continue to wear our masks and stay physically apart – and find ways to stay connected to those we love in ways other than gatherings.
Some of the information shared in this article comes from the following websites:
• BC Centre for Disease Control• Government of BC COVID website
• BC Centre for Disease Control
• Government of BC COVID website