The COVID-19 pandemic used to be easier to navigate. You remember those days, in early 2020 and into 2021, when the risks were black and white, vaccine rollouts were still in their infancy, and most Canadians were happy to let public-health officials manage the response to the crisis.
Now we’re in a different stage of the pandemic, where little is clear any more.
On the one hand, there are worrying developments. Ontario and Quebec are officially in new waves of the pandemic, and other provinces are also seeing upticks. Canada’s seven-day rolling average of new confirmed cases has risen from less than 2,000 in the middle of June to 3,276 on Monday, according to Our World in Data.
Wastewater signals, in which the levels of COVID-19 are measured in sewage, are rising, albeit slowly, across much of the country.
In Europe and New Zealand, cases are spiking. The Omicron variant believed to be the leading cause of new infections, BA.5, is not well understood. It’s unclear whether it’s more transmissible than previous dominant strains, or more dangerous, but the consensus is that it is different enough from its predecessors to be able to evade the antibodies of past infections, and is harder for the current vaccines to neutralize.
On June 29, the Public Health Agency of Canada said, “The likelihood, timing and severity of a future wave of COVID-19 is uncertain.” The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) is concerned enough that it wants anyone over 65, or who is vulnerable because they live in a congregate setting or because of their social status, to get a booster in the fall – “regardless of the number of booster doses previously received.”
At the same time, most, if not all, major public-health restrictions – mask mandates, vaccine requirements for domestic travel, mandatory testing for returning international travellers – have been lifted.
As well, there is a deficit of current data, thanks to the decision by provinces to stop releasing new case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths on a daily basis. Ontario, for instance, only makes the latest numbers public once a week, on Thursdays.
Worse, the data are less reliable, because there is far less official testing going on. In the United States, the Institute for Health Metrics estimates that the actual infection rate there could be seven times higher than the official count. In Canada, where the average number of daily new tests per 100,000 people in the first week of July was only 58, new confirmed case counts are not a reliable indicator of the spread of the virus.
New hospitalizations are a better metric, and to date in July they are rising but not spiking. Deaths are not spiking, either. In both Quebec and Ontario, health officials believe the current wave will peak quickly in July, based on current models.
So where does that leave the average Canadian? Is the new variant more dangerous or not? How does a person decide whether to wear a mask indoors, or whether it’s safe to attend a crowded sporting event or concert? In this moment of uncertainty, is it possible to make the right move?
The answer is a resounding yes. We know enough about COVID-19 to make wise choices.
It starts with vaccines. They are the single best weapon in the arsenal against the virus. They can keep people out of overcrowded hospitals, reduce the odds of new variants appearing, and cut back on the severity of an infection.
They have also been proven safe and effective the world over. Canadian governments should be making them as widely available as possible and urging everyone to get them.
And yet there are still millions of people who haven’t had two shots, and half the eligible population has never received a booster. This is a huge failing on the part of governments.
Masks are a simple choice, too. COVID-19 is an airborne disease. If you don’t want to catch the latest variant, wear a properly fitted mask in indoor spaces and avoid large crowds. There are many more infected people out there than are being accounted for.
Above all, don’t mistake the current moment for the end of the pandemic. It’s an error too many politicians appear to be making, and it could come back to haunt everyone.
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