Author’s note: This is not a Northern Health-sanctioned media release, but rather one Northern Health doctors’ summary as of mid-January 2021
There’s a lot we don’t know about COVID, and what we know is always changing. New data is being collected all the time. The overall death rate after being infected seems to be less than two per cent. Most people who die from COVID-19 are elderly.
Approximately 10 per cent of people experience prolonged (more than 3 weeks) illness after COVID-19. This includes mostly lung, heart, or nerve symptoms. After the initial flu-like illness is gone, some people get prolonged symptoms of COVID-19 (or “long COVID” or “long haulers”) that sometimes happens after just a mild initial flu-like illness.
This can disable or sometimes hospitalize people for weeks or months. A recent U.S. study found that only six per cent of people had returned to their previous level of health 14-21 days after a positive test. In other words, about a third of people did not return to normal health as expected after this time.
This virus does affect young people. From my B.C. provincial source on COVID, since Dec. 18 in B.C., 15 children had been hospitalized under the age of 10 (for a total 36) and 11 more were hospitalized in the age 10-19 category. There are kids in intensive care units.
This virus is going to spread no matter what we do. The goal has been to slow the spread, so our systems are not overwhelmed, and so we minimize deaths and disabilities as much as possible. If it spreads too quickly it will fill up our Intensive Care Units (ICUs) and regular hospital beds.
It already is. We need these ICUs for other reasons. We cannot do any larger operations since we cannot care for patients in the ICU afterward. There are people awaiting necessary surgery. At the time of writing this, Prince George, Hazelton and Prince Rupert have had to cut back on surgeries, for example.
This varies by the week. The whole province is still coping right now due to the efforts of the many good people using common sense following guidelines. We are still doing the most urgent operations as soon as possible. But COVID threatens to upset that as nurses are redeployed to take care of COVID patients. And there’s only so many nurses and respiratory technicians and doctors and lab technicians and radiology technicians etc. If any of these professionals get sick, we don’t have much reserve, especially in the North.
At a less than two per cent death rate, it has been said that this virus is particularly successful in spreading since it doesn’t kill enough people for everyone to take it seriously. But it still kills enough people to be taken seriously by most people. If the virus were more deadly, like Ebola for example, we would all take it more seriously.
Many of us don’t actually see the effects this virus has on people, because those people are isolated away in hospital beds and we don’t allow cameras into rooms for privacy and dignity reasons. It is always scary to see someone desperate to breathe. We are seeing it here in the North in our emergency rooms.
When people used to get polio, you could see the effects. Often nerve damage left people limping. There were people with crutches and walking aids all over North America due to polio.
We rarely see this now because we have a good vaccine against it. We rarely see tetanus, but we still see it in BC. It’s horrible and deadly. It’s very rare because we have a good vaccine. Not all vaccines are this effective. Sometimes the yearly flu vaccine is pretty ineffective, and the yearly flu doesn’t tend to kill young people.
So I can’t blame people for thinking it may not be worth getting the flu vaccine, (even though I think it’s a good idea). The pertussis vaccine has not been as effective as others. People can still get pertussis, but it’s usually not severe.
We found out the mumps vaccine for certain years wasn’t as effective, so we’ve recommended boosters for people in certain birth years.
We are always learning. Just like now.
Diphtheria is still out there and a significant problem in much of the world. How many Canadians know this? How many Canadians remember what diphtheria is? We get desensitized when we don’t see just how effective vaccines have been in our country.
After a long emergency room shift, where I feel like I haven’t helped anybody, I sometimes try to think of things that modern medicine has done right. Data shows that vaccines, in general, are one thing that has made a massive difference in the world.
Are the COVID vaccines effective? They seem so. The data says over 90 per cent effective. But what we know is always changing.
At this point the vaccines are the best hope for us all to get back to a more normal life without having the threat of more isolation. And we know the virus may continue to spread and may mutate to a form that’s not covered by our vaccines. We can only hope that’s not going to happen. And we keep on learning.
Please understand that the public health officials are trying to use the best scientific data to recommend what’s right for our communities. They are still learning. I’m thankful the small cohorts, hand washing, masks and other measures have prevented the full shutdowns we have seen in other places. I hope, truly hope, we can all work together to continue to find ways to solve the many problems this virus has created and keep our society, and our hospitals, operating.
Head of Anesthesia at Bulkley Valley District Hospital
(Not an infectious disease specialist, nor public health specialist)