Like scavengers desperate for even a morsel of sustenance, we’re latching onto every crumb of positive-sounding news about the Omicron variant. Israel’s Health Minister has said booster shots may protect against the variant; the South African doctor who first identified Omicron noted that symptoms in infected people appear to be mild; the World Health Organization has echoed that early data does not indicate this variant causes more severe illness.
Clinical, epidemiological and laboratory data will confirm over the next couple of weeks whether these early signs painted an accurate picture of Omicron – or whether we’re dealing with a variant that is in fact more virulent, transmissible and/or immune-resistant than any we’ve seen before. But if indeed Omicron turns out to be the variant that makes Delta and Alpha look like SARS-CoV-2 with training wheels, we could be in a world of trouble. Not just because of the obvious havoc a more deadly or transmissible variant would have globally, but because it’s clear that the days of broad, dutiful public-health compliance are over.
Just try saying the words “months-long virtual learning” to parents who have been on a hellish seesaw of shifting school-attendance policies. They’ll collapse into fits of deranged, maniacal laughter. Try telling restaurateurs who have been forced to close, then allowed to open under certain conditions, then tasked with checking people’s vaccination status – all while dealing with higher food costs and labour shortages – that the government may have to restrict their business operations again. Does anyone think they’ll submissively lock their doors as they did a year ago? Ask extended families if they will again retreat to their respective households and revert back to window visits and Zoom calls.
Existing public-health rules, such as capacity limits and wearing masks indoors, may stick around a while yet, but it will be an almost impossible sell to convince the public to acquiesce to 2020-type lockdown measures heading into 2022, even if they’re necessary. People are exhausted and frustrated, and many justifiably feel they’ve compromised enough. The reservoir of public compliance and understanding was used up by the previous variants – so it would be especially devastating if Omicron turns out to be the one that most demands it.
Compounding the risk that a more dangerous variant would pose to Canada is the fact that we haven’t really shored up other measures to deal with another serious outbreak. Two years after the pandemic was declared, our policies at the border are still being made up on the fly, in a slapdash manner that is largely incomprehensible even to those paying close attention. Shortly after South African health officials revealed information about Omicron, Canada’s federal government implemented a travel ban for foreign nationals arriving from select countries, then suddenly expanded its list. It announced new on-arrival testing requirements for some, home quarantine obligations for others, designated quarantine facility stays for yet others, then promised that everything would be implemented just as soon as airports could catch up and decipher the new rules.
Our hospitals aren’t ready for a more serious variant either. The blame for that falls more on the shoulders of successive governments even before the pandemic, since meaningfully improving health care capacity takes decades of investment, primarily in the education and acquisition of new staff, which is impossible to achieve in just a couple of years. Our facilities do have better access to personal protective equipment, and doctors now have tools, such as monoclonal antibodies, to treat COVID-19 patients. But a fresh wave of ICU admissions would again overwhelm our hospitals, especially if and when the resumption of everyday activities means more people showing up because of falls and accidents, along with those beginning to return for so-called “elective” procedures that had been put on pause. The staffing situation in Quebec and Ontario is so tenuous, in fact, that their respective governments chose not to implement vaccine mandates among health care workers to avoid any potential staff losses; in B.C., a vaccine mandate there led to the cancellation of some surgeries and procedures. A more contagious variant that causes more serious illness, or one that renders our current vaccines less effective, could send our health care systems into tailspins again.
We should thus pray to whatever deity or spirit or periodic table we believe in that Omicron is merely a sign that the virus that causes COVID-19 is becoming endemic – that it exists perhaps as a more transmissible but less virulent iteration. Because not only are we clearly not ready for a more dangerous variant, after forfeiting so much in dealing with previous versions, many of us won’t be willing to sacrifice for it, either.
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