The news out of Europe is scary. Countries that had the COVID-19 virus “under control” are now reporting significant increases in the number of those infected and the situation is even worse in those countries that had failed to vaccinate their populations aggressively enough.

Furthermore, it’s not just the immediate consequences of getting sick with COVID-19 that we need to be worried about. The long-term effects, the so-called “long COVID,” is a real and serious danger that will affect anywhere from 10 to 30 per cent (and perhaps even more) of those who catch the virus — even if they don’t get sick.

There is an important cautionary message coming to us from across the Atlantic and it’s clear and unequivocal. You must not only get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, but you must maintain the basic protective measures because not everyone will respond to the vaccine and not everyone can get vaccinated. For example, a significant part of our population, our kids, aren’t vaccinated yet.

The easing of restrictions that the government has announced is probably too much too soon. The truth is there is no reason to rush. For example, why have high school kids take off their masks in the classrooms now? It would make more sense to wait until after winter break when we know there will be a spike in illnesses as there always is. Handwashing, distancing, good ventilation, and mask-wearing are just as important now as they ever were, especially as we move indoors with the cold weather.

The other significant message is the importance of the booster for those who were vaccinated more than 6 to 8 months ago. The evidence from Europe, and even here, is compelling. We are already seeing an increase in the number of breakthrough cases — situations where people develop COVID-19 in spite of receiving two doses of the vaccine. We know that immunity is starting to decline even in healthy people in our community. That fact has been recognized by world health authorities and by Health Canada. Given what’s happening here and in Europe, this is not the time to limit the booster campaign.

Should pregnant women get the vaccine?

It’s understandable that a pregnant woman would be especially careful about doing anything that might put her developing baby at risk. But don’t avoid the vaccines against COVID-19 if you’re pregnant. In fact, if anything, our recent experience has shown that if an unvaccinated pregnant woman gets COVID-19 she runs the risk of not only getting very sick herself, but also putting her pregnancy at risk.

The data is clear. Unless you have a special individual risk factor, which you and your health care provider should discuss, vaccination against COVID-19 is important at whatever stage of your pregnancy. Also, anyone spending time with someone who is pregnant, or a newborn should get properly vaccinated. Since the risk in pregnancy is real and there isn’t a vaccine yet for newborns, we all have a responsibility to get vaccinated to protect them.

Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at McGill Medical School as well as an Attending Physician in the Emergency Department of the McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.

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