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opinion

People wait in line at a COVID assessment centre at Women's College Hospital on Sept. 23, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Canada has just surpassed four million confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Not that anyone cares any more – at least anyone with political power.

Not to mention that four million is undoubtedly a gross underestimate because we stopped testing just as a wave of Omicron overran the country.

A study done by researchers at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto found that about nine million Canadians were infected in the first few months of 2022.

Research published by the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force had even more eye-popping numbers, saying that 17 million Canadians – about 45 per cent of the population – were likely infected during the “Omicron tsunami” that occurred in the winter and spring of this year.

What matters is not so much the raw numbers but the trends, so it’s worth glancing back over the past couple of years.

On Aug. 1, 2020, Canada had recorded 117,140 cases and 8,895 deaths. After months of breathless media coverage and severe public-health measures, officials were hopeful the worst had passed.

How wrong they were.

By Aug. 1, 2021, the cumulative case count had soared to 1.44 million, along with 26,601 pandemic deaths.

Now, Aug. 1, 2022, the country has recorded almost 4.1 million (or 12 million, or 20 million cases – take your pick) and mortality is close to 43,000. (Most jurisdictions publish data only weekly now, so the numbers are always a bit behind.)

So, what’s happened?

COVID-19 infections have grown exponentially thanks to the coronavirus mutating and becoming far more infectious.

At the same time, thanks to a combination of widespread vaccination, infection and reinfection, people are not getting as sick. Proportionally, there are far fewer hospitalizations and deaths.

Yet, there are still more than 5,000 COVID-19 patients in Canada’s beleaguered hospitals, including almost 300 in intensive care.

And, even if the death rate remains where it is today (about 40 pandemic fatalities daily), and doesn’t rise in the fall as expected, there will be significantly more COVID deaths in 2022 than in the previous two years.

The continuing large numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths have led a loud minority to argue that COVID-19 vaccination has been a failure.

It hasn’t.

Initially, vaccines worked tremendously well.

As Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, Calif., has noted: “Had the virus not subsequently evolved so profoundly, its containment would have been straightforward and we wouldn’t be talking about a pandemic right now in the present tense.”

Despite the rapid rise in reinfections, vaccines still confer enough immune protection to tamp down the damage done by the virus. People who have received third and fourth shots (or first and second boosters, if you prefer) continue to have markedly lower rates of hospitalization and death than the unvaccinated.

No amount of misstated data and misinformation changes those facts.

One of the biggest mistakes we made, however, was expecting vaccines to be a panacea. As a result, we neglected other important public-health measures such as masking, improving ventilation, isolation of the ill, and more.

Vaccines are going to be improved. There will be new formulations of both the Pfizer and Moderna shots in the fall. There is also work being done on nasal vaccines and a universal vaccine for all strains of coronavirus.

We have to continue this type of research because the pandemic isn’t over.

At least not biologically, or medically.

Erica Charters, a professor of the global history of medicine at Oxford University who leads a project called How Epidemics End, argues that epidemics don’t have neat endings.

Global pandemics like COVID-19 actually wind down in stages: There is a medical ending, when a pathogen becomes endemic and no longer overwhelms health systems; there is a political ending, when leaders decide the crisis has passed and do away with regulations and; there is a social ending, when life returns to normal, with day-to-day activities approaching pre-pandemic levels.

But what is “normal, acceptable, and manageable” can vary tremendously in the eyes of individuals and even countries, which can create a lot of tension.

We are in that cognitively dissonant time now when COVID-19 is still very much a medical threat, but has been deemed to be over, politically, and socially.

As long as we continue to play down and deny the medical threat – and its effect on the health system, in particular – and embrace the “it’s over” mantra, we will just be whistling past the graveyards.

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