Back in March, 2020, when lockdowns seemed like a novel and quaint little experiment, it was reasonable to advise people to reduce their number of in-person contacts. Canadians actually largely heeded federal advice against non-essential travel, and restrictions to business operations were viewed as a patriotic contribution to the pandemic war effort. These sacrifices were sold as measures to give governments and health care systems time to prepare for a potential onslaught of critically-ill patients, and Canadians mostly complied with public-health directives.
We are in a different pandemic now. Not only because the public’s reverence for authority has been tested by several waves of the virus, but because of what we are learning about the Omicron variant.
Early research suggests that Omicron could be four times more transmissible than Delta, and modelling from the Ontario Science Table indicates a case doubling time for the variant of just over two days. The first cases of Omicron were detected in Canada on Nov. 28; just over two weeks later, Omicron overtook Delta in Ontario as the most prevalent cause of COVID-19 infection.
In response to rising case numbers, Ontario Premier Doug Ford convened a press conference Wednesday in which he announced that booster doses would be offered on an accelerated schedule to those over 18. He also said rapid tests would be distributed throughout the province for individual use for free, and that the province was reinstating capacity limits for indoor facilities that can hold 1,000 people or more. But the Premier also made an offhand quip that rankled those who have been vocal about the need to return to some early-pandemic restrictions: “We aren’t going to lock down the system and try to get out of this,” Mr. Ford said. “Get vaccinated. That is our best defence on this.”
If Omicron truly is as infectious as it seems – and exponentially growing case-counts across the country, as well as internationally, indicate that it indeed seems to be – then Mr. Ford is right: halving the number of people in sports arenas, and perhaps reducing the number of patrons in a restaurant or again closing down non-essential businesses, won’t slow the spread of Omicron to the degree necessary to spare our feeble health care system in the worst doomsday-prediction scenarios. Lockdown-fatigue-fueled noncompliance, combined with an incredibly infectious new variant, means that it is no longer realistic to expect that lockdowns will be an effective measure to see us through this next wave, nor can they be viewed as necessarily worth the mental and financial anguish they will exact on an exhausted population.
In an ideal scenario, restrictions would work just as well as they did back in March, 2020, but the conditions now have changed. Mr. Ford was simply being clear-sighted when he said we weren’t going to lock ourselves down out of this one, and that immunity (vaccine-derived or otherwise) will be the mechanism that sees us through to the other side.
If this all sounds terribly nihilistic, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Lab results, as well as real-world analysis compiled by the British government, show that a three-dose regimen of a COVID-19 vaccine protects well against an Omicron infection. So far, we have not seen hospitalizations keep pace with exploding case rates across the world, though that could obviously change, especially since hospitalization is a lagging indicator. A recent study by researchers in Hong Kong (which has not yet been peer-reviewed) suggests that Omicron may cause a less severe infection, and a study done by a private health insurer in South Africa similarly found the risk of hospitalization during the Omicron wave was nearly 30 per cent lower than in previous waves. Needless to say, the whole world is hoping that this trend holds.
Hope is not a strategy, of course, as Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore said Tuesday. But neither is a patchwork return to lockdowns, with a variant that is doubling every two days among a restrictions-weary population. Exacerbating that weariness are fatalistic predictions such as the one offered by Dr. Andrew Morris, a member of the Ontario Science Table, who recently told the Toronto Star he is “pretty certain that everybody in the next six to 12 weeks will be infected with Omicron, unless they’re living the life of a hermit.” That of course raises the question of why we should bother with additional restrictions at all, if everyone will get sick anyway. Indeed, buying the health care system a couple of days of delay won’t matter if the whole province will inevitably contract COVID-19 in the span of three months.
Our best strategy then, all things considered, might be to simply continue what we are already doing, if perhaps with a bit more vigilance: lining up for our boosters, taking rapid tests if we have access, and making smart choices about group gatherings and public-space exposures. Public patience, economic circumstances and the virus itself has changed substantially since March, 2020. Though governments might try to implement the same old techniques, the reality of the Omicron wave will disable them from the start.
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