Omicron is more infectious than a Lennon-McCartney hook. In a little more than a month it has gone from first identification in South Africa, to arrival in Canada, to a record spike in infections – so many that testing can’t keep up. And we have yet to reach the summit.
Over the coming weeks and months, nearly every one of us is going to come into contact with Omicron. And millions of Canadians are going to become infected.
Many of the infected will have no symptoms, and most of the rest will have only mild symptoms – excellent news. But a small percentage will become seriously ill, and need to be hospitalized.
On Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said that figure was around 1 per cent. That may be a low risk for each individual, but for the country as a whole, the math will generate a tsunami. If, say, two million Canadians become infected over the course of a week, and 1 per cent are seriously ill, our hospitals will be swamped.
The grim equation is already starting to play out. On Tuesday, Ontario had 1,302 people in hospital – more than double the tally of a week earlier – and 266 in the ICU, up 42 per cent.
But there’s also good news – about Omicron’s severity, the effectiveness of public-health measures, and the power of vaccines.
Canada has to take advantage of all of the above to lower and lengthen the wave, reduce the number of our fellow citizens who will be hospitalized, and keep our health care system from drowning.
The first bit of good news is the mounting evidence that Omicron tends to deliver less severe symptoms than previous variants. The risk of hospitalization appears to be half that of Delta, and the risk of illness serious enough to put someone in the intensive care unit appears to be reduced by about three-quarters.
But that subtraction only partly counterbalances Omicron’s superpower of multiplication – the fact that it is around 10 times more contagious than its predecessor.
However, there’s something else that can further subtract from Omicron: Vaccination.
Ontario’s Science Table has been tracking how well two doses of vaccine, most given months ago, are protecting against Omicron. A two-shot vaccination appears to offer only limited protection against Omicron infection – but a high level of protection, around 80 per cent, against infection leading to hospitalization. What’s more, two doses appear to offer something close to a complete shield against ending up in the ICU.
And booster shots raise the drawbridge even higher.
Which is why vaccinations are more important than ever. Yet the booster campaign that was supposed to take flight last month took a vacation between Christmas and New Year’s. The United Kingdom has already given a booster to 60 per cent of the population aged 12 and over; Canada’s figure is less than half that.
And while roughly nine out of 10 Canadian adults are fully vaccinated, that leaves one in 10, or about three million adults, stubbornly on the wrong side of the line.
The whole point of all those reintroduced public-health measures – closed restaurants, shuttered gyms, empty schools, even a curfew in Quebec – is to lower the number of people who will end up in hospital. But remaining unvaccinated undermines that, since it significantly raises the likelihood of being hospitalized.
And while public-health measures can’t defeat Omicron, they can slow it, buying time to get more shots into arms and better ventilation in schools. That can protect the health care system by both lowering the number of people needing hospitalization and spreading them out over a longer period.
The final bit of good news is that the combination of mass vaccination and mass infection, the latter by a variant that so far isn’t producing severe symptoms in most people, may be the thing that finally ends the pandemic, by making COVID-19 endemic.
We’re all tired of being forced to go through yet another sequel to pandemic Groundhog Day. But Canada has learned a lot since the first go around. We have the tools, if we will just use them. We are still the masters of our fate.
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