There is growing evidence that a new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is headed for our shores. You don’t have to squint very hard to see it.
It’s there in the World Health Organization’s announcement this week that BA.2, the highly contagious Omicron subvariant, is now the planet’s dominant strain of Omicron.
BA.2 is believed to be 1.4 times more contagious than the BA.1 Omicron virus that sent much of Canada back into restrictions just before Christmas, and which has killed more than 7,000 Canadians since then.
It’s there in the surges in BA.2 cases in China and Hong Kong, and in Britain, France, Italy, Denmark and Germany.
In Canada, as province after province lifts mask mandates and the federal government eases testing requirements for people travelling into the country, scientists in Alberta, Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec are seeing a steady increase in the presence of both the BA.1 and BA.2 variants in waste-water testing.
It’s also there in the fact that the BA.2 variant is now the dominant strain in Quebec and Alberta, and could soon be dominant in Ontario and elsewhere. It is already believed to represent 50 per cent of all new cases in Canada.
All of these things combine to form an ominous dark line on the horizon, like a massive tidal wave far out on the ocean. If the above-mentioned factors were the only ones taken into consideration, there’d be good reason to fear for the worst.
Thankfully, there are other things at play in Canada, which can and should protect us from being swamped.
One is that the current rise in waste-water signals was largely expected by public-health officials. An increase in infections was inevitable after many provinces lifted capacity limits and vaccine passport mandates in late February and early March, and international travel started to return. Those signals will no doubt continue to mount now that mask mandates have largely ended.
The various mandates were effective tools for preventing the spread of infection, but the evidence – the steady drop in cases, hospitalizations and deaths – was there to argue for lifting them this month.
Still, take them away and infections inevitably increase. Thus, it’s still too soon to interpret the rise in waste-water signals as a sign of real danger – and, for now, most provinces continue to report a drop in hospitalizations, or only small increases.
Another positive factor is that Canada has just gone through an aggressive wave of the BA.1 Omicron variant, and there is evidence that people who’ve been infected with BA.1 are immune to BA.2.
The biggest plus, though, is Canada’s high rate of vaccination. Even better yet, the rate is especially high in older, vulnerable populations. Among Canadians 80 years and older, 97.1 per cent have two shots and 84.5 per cent have three. For those ages 70 to 79, 96.2 per cent have two shots and 82.9 per cent have three.
There is solid evidence that vaccines, while not always able to prevent infection, are highly effective at limiting the severity of an Omicron case in people of all ages, and at protecting against a rise in hospitalizations of the kind that could force governments to bring back public-health mandates.
But, as this page said last week, there are several million people, including more than 800,000 over the age of 50, who are unvaccinated. And, as of last week, there were more than 1.6 million people over 60 who hadn’t gotten a booster shot, which is considered critical against Omicron.
As well, the country’s broader booster campaign has stalled out at 47 per cent of the total population.
This week, faced with a rise in BA.2 cases, and unsure of whether it amounts to a new wave of the pandemic, Quebec announced it will provide fourth shots for seniors and other vulnerable groups starting next week.
That sort of precautionary thinking is the right thing to do – for governments and especially for individuals, now that vaccine and mask mandates are lifting.
You can stand defenceless on the shore and wait to find out whether the next wave will tower over your head, or lap up against your feet. Or you can head to the high ground that vaccines provide, continue to wear a mask in indoor public settings (think of them as flotation devices), and wait it out from a safe place.
It’s your choice now.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.