When B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer recently said the province was altering its pandemic strategy and beginning to manage COVID-19 more like a common cold, more than a few sips of coffee were spit out.
It was not a message most were expecting to hear from Dr. Bonnie Henry.
While certain virus-related restrictions remain in place, B.C. has removed isolation requirements and testing for most of the population. And while Dr. Henry emphasized she was not suggesting that the disease had become endemic – something that behaves more like a seasonal flu – she was making it clear that health strategies to deal with this plague were shifting.
It’s a message we are seeing from politicians and public health officials across the country and around the world. Alberta has declared that Omicron has peaked in the province, and restrictions will be lifted in the near future. In Europe, meanwhile, some countries have effectively declared the pandemic over. Britain has dropped most of its COVID-19 restrictions, including the wearing of masks. Ireland and others have also moved in this direction.
Undoubtedly, there are Canadians everywhere cheering these developments. Everyone wants this damned pandemic over with. Everyone wants their freedoms back. Parents, in particular, want to know a world again in which they don’t have to worry about what to do with children who can’t go to school and cry every day about online learning.
The pollster Darrell Bricker (Ipsos) recently said on Twitter that a majority of Canadians (67 per cent of those surveyed) believe the virus has entered an endemic state. I’m not sure that is anything more than wishful thinking, but it’s telling nonetheless. It reflects the feeling I get that people can’t handle much more of this thing.
But what if, in the desire to give people a desperately needed break from lockdowns and circuit breakers, our politicians and public health officials are making a miscalculation? What if they are setting us up for a massive disappointment? Are they preparing to deliver us to a point where there is no turning back to anything resembling a lockdown, regardless of circumstance?
Which brings me to the concern I have.
I recently listened to an interview the BBC did with Maria Van Kerkhove, the lead infectious disease epidemiologist with the World Health Organization. She, too, recognizes that people are ready to be done with the virus but she cautioned that it’s far, far too early to move into that mindset.
She practically guaranteed that COVID-19 will not end with the Omicron wave. She said it would not be the last variant or wave we are talking about. There are still more than three billion people around the world who have not had a single dose of vaccine to protect them from the worst effects of the virus. This will allow the virus to flourish and mutate.
Dr. Van Kerkhove expressed alarm over governments dropping isolation requirements and other pandemic restrictions. She said this gives the virus a free ride, and bad things can happen when that occurs.
“We will be in this situation with COVID-19 right through 2022,” said Dr. Van Kerkhov. “There is no question in my mind. You can’t reach an endemic state in one country while the virus is thriving elsewhere. It doesn’t work that way.”
Of course, no one wants to hear that, least of all the fine folks in the truck convoy who have begun to descend on Ottawa for a protest this weekend – and who believe the restrictions were a tragedy from the outset. The prospect of this pandemic lasting throughout this year is enough to make them completely lose their minds, if they haven’t already.
Perhaps we should take solace in the fact that Omicron may have helped accelerate the end of the pandemic. It has infected so many people that it has also helped build community immunity. This could help us take a major step toward making COVID-19 a more manageable disease.
But it will not lead to the extinction of the virus.
As William Hanage recently wrote in the New York Times, pandemics don’t end with the “virus vanquished, a ticker-tape parade and a banner proclaiming “mission accomplished.” Instead, said the infectious disease researcher at the Havard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the disease reaches a point at which public health authorities decide it’s a tolerable risk to resume life as we knew it.
The problem is that people will disagree about what that means and when that moment has arrived.
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