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A person arrives at a COVID-19 testing clinic, in Montreal, on Jan. 15.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

What are we to make of COVID-19 reinfections?

Early in the pandemic, it was rare to hear of a reinfection.

Vaccination was supposed to provide long-term protection against the novel coronavirus. There was also a loud minority advocating for letting the virus run wild so people could develop natural immunity.

More than two years later, a lot has changed.

In Canada, it’s estimated that one in 10 infections are now reinfections. Even people with two and three doses of vaccine are getting infected, and reinfected.

Herd immunity – the idea that if 80 to 90 per cent of the population develops antibodies through vaccination or natural infection it will lead to the pandemic petering out – now seems an impossibility.

It’s all a bit discouraging.

SARS-CoV-2 has proved a lot more wily than we anticipated. It has mutated in ways that have made it more infectious and better able to evade vaccines.

Still, we’re in a much better place today than we were when the coronavirus emerged in late 2019.

We have vaccines. Good vaccines that we will be able to adapt to variants. We have antiviral treatments, and should use them.

The death rate is way down, for a couple of reasons: 1) A lot of people have been vaccinated – 86 per cent of those eligible have received two doses, and 48 per cent a third dose; and 2) A lot of people have been infected, and that has bolstered their immunity as well.

That’s encouraging; we shouldn’t succumb to the nihilistic “vaccines don’t work” nonsense.

While vaccines don’t prevent the spread of the virus, they do make it much less likely that an infected person will be hospitalized or die. That is especially true of those who have received three doses.

The arrival of the Omicron variant late in 2021 changed the game considerably. Prior to that, we saw a relatively small number of breakthrough infections – people getting infected despite being “fully” vaccinated. (And let’s stop pretending that means two doses.)

Pre-Omicron, only about one per cent of people had documented reinfections. The far more infectious variant caused a surge of infections and reinfections. By some estimates, at least 10 million Canadians have contracted COVID-19 since Omicron arrived, according to data published by CBC News. And the number of reinfections jumped about tenfold.

These numbers are estimates because we have now severely restricted PCR testing and we don’t make any effort to collect data on rapid testing. When it comes to data collection, we’ve opted for blissful ignorance.

Still, the numbers we do have, coupled with the common anecdotal reports of “everyone has COVID” have led many to throw up their hands, to assume that resistance is futile. “We’re all going to get infected,” the thinking goes, “so what’s the point of masks, vaccines and other public-health measures?”

Number-crunching by the CBC has also revealed that somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 to 50 per cent of Canadians have been infected so far, many of them in the last few months of the pandemic. The rates are even higher for children, about two-thirds; and a little lower for older people, because most of them have kept their social interactions to a minimum.

Yet, there are silver linings here.

A combination of vaccination and infection (which is the reality for most adults) confers the best immunity.

The evidence also points to reinfections being milder than initial infections. That’s why, despite the huge jump in those infected since Christmas, hospitals have not been overwhelmed and deaths stayed relatively low.

Yet, we cannot afford to become inured to the lingering pandemic reality: there are still almost 7,000 Canadians hospitalized with COVID-19, and 60 to 70 people dying daily.

Not being infected is still better than being infected.

Masking is still better than not masking as it protects the vulnerable. And isolating when you have symptoms – even if you can’t get your hands on a test – is wise and civic-minded, again to protect the vulnerable (like frail elders and people with disabilities and chronic illnesses) who are at much higher risk.

We can expect a pretty mellow summer, pandemic-wise, because there is a seasonal effect to the virus.

But we should still be leery of what awaits us in the fall. An even more sneaky variant? A higher rate of reinfection?

Our efforts to date have left us better protected and better equipped to handle the next COVID-19 curveball – as long as we don’t throw in the towel on prevention efforts like vaccination, or foolishly assume the pesky little bug fuelling this pandemic is done challenging us.

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