Yet another uptick in COVID-19 activity, courtesy of the EG.5 variant, is an unwanted reminder that the pandemic is stubbornly sticking around.
An estimated one in 46 Canadians are currently infected with COVID-19.
The good news is that the population has broad levels of hybrid immunity – through a combination of vaccination and infection – that have blunted the impact of the virus as it continues to circulate and mutate.
Prior exposure to the virus doesn’t prevent reinfection, but studies have repeatedly shown hybrid immunity sharply reduces the risk of severe illness and death.
So, while a lot of people are still catching COVID – about 870,000 are currently infected based on the one in 46 estimate – hospitalizations remain manageable (about 2,400 nationally right now), and deaths rare (under 30 a week).
EG.5, also known as Eris – not to be confused with Eras, the Taylor Swift tour – is just one of the many subvariants of Omicron.
While Eris has been dubbed a “variant of interest” by the World Health Organization, its symptoms – sore throat, cough, runny nose, fever – are not that different from previous iterations. But there are some indications the virus has evolved to become more transmissible.
As summer winds down and we prepare for the return to school and work in the fall, the “summer flu” symptoms that are pestering so many should remind us that precautions are still in order.
It’s disconcerting that we’ve done so little in terms of long-term responses such as bolstering ventilation in schools and long-term care homes.
But, to minimize risks of infection and severe illness, the old standbys still work: wearing a decent mask like an N95, staying home when you’re sick, minimizing social contacts indoors and getting vaccinated.
Paradoxically, however, for most people it’s probably best to hold off on getting a booster right now.
Updated versions of the COVID-19 vaccine that will be available in the fall will target the XBB.1.5 variant (a cousin of EG.5), and they should offer better protection than currently available shots.
Of course, convincing people to get boosters will be the biggest challenge, particularly in an environment where governments have decided to move on, in many cases not even doing basic surveillance, data collection and public-health campaigns.
The uptake of boosters has been poor, leading to massive wastage. Canada has already trashed more than 14 million doses this year, and four million more are set to expire in the coming months.
In addition to better procurement policies (and less pointless hoarding), the best approach at this point is to target those at highest risk: those over age 60, elders living in institutional care, pregnant women and people living with chronic health problems, particularly respiratory and cardiac conditions.
At some point, we will also have to figure out if protecting people from COVID-19 will require an annual booster, as influenza does.
We also have to be careful not to focus so narrowly on COVID that we neglect other infectious disease threats.
It’s worth recalling that, last winter, Canada (like many other countries) was smashed by a “tripledemic” of COVID, influenza and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).
The good news on this front is that countries in the southern hemisphere like Australia did not have a severe winter flu season, and saw RSV rates calm down, which bodes well for the coming winter in the northern hemisphere.
What’s fascinating is how the pattern of COVID spread has changed. We’ve gone from massive waves of illness in the spring of 2020 (the initial SARS-CoV-2) and the winter of 2022 (the Omicron surge) to steady wavelets of Omicron offshoots.
In other words, COVID-19 has become more of an ongoing local nuisance than an immediate national/global threat.
We need to adjust our public-health responses to that new reality.
COVID-19 is here to stay, so we can’t be on high alert all the time. But we can’t afford to be indifferent either, especially since we don’t yet understand what the impact of long COVID will be over time.
But we can and should be prudent, acknowledging that while the pandemic is not over yet, we can be simultaneously vigilant and calmly cautious.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the estimated number of people with hybrid immunity. This version has been updated.