On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden called the new Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” That phrasing, or some, um, variant of it, has become the preferred messaging of many public officials, including in Canada. Unfortunately, it’s not quite the right message, and it doesn’t suggest quite the right approach.
A better message would go something like this:
“A storm is coming. It may turn out to be small and easily manageable. Or it may deliver a record wave, one big enough to overtop Canada’s current levee of vaccine-induced immunity. We honestly don’t know. And we won’t know for a few weeks. That’s how long it will take scientists to study the threat, and get a clearer picture of its nature and its scale.
“Until then, Canadian governments will look to that touchstone of pandemic preparation: The precautionary principle. That means preparing for the worst, so things have the greatest chance of turning out for the best.”
And that starts at the border. Last week, Canada closed itself to travellers who have recently been in seven southern African countries. Is that enough?
Omicron was first discovered and analyzed in South Africa, but by the time it was spotted, it had likely been circulating – and travelling – for weeks or even months. On Monday, Ontario announced two confirmed cases in travellers from Nigeria. Also on Monday, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that some recent cases there did not appear linked to travel to southern Africa.
In other words, if border measures are needed, there would appear to be strong arguments in favour of extending them beyond seven southern African countries. To slow the arrival of more cases of a variant that may be more contagious and also more dangerous, shouldn’t Canada trip the circuit breaker and temporarily reinstate travel restrictions – such as requiring all but essential travellers to quarantine for 14 days, plus COVID-19 testing before and after arrival?
There’s also the issue of travellers to and from the United States. They currently must undergo testing before returning to Canada but as of Tuesday, that requirement is to be lifted for those on trips of less than 72 hours. Shouldn’t that be postponed for at least a month?
If the Trudeau government does not want to strengthen the border defences, it owes it to Canadians to explain why. There may be solid scientific arguments against new precautions and, if so, it should make them – ASAP. There’s no time to waste. The World Health Organization on Monday warned that the global risk from Omicron is “very high” based on the early evidence, and that the variant could produce surges with “severe consequences.”
It will take a few weeks for scientists to get a better picture of the new adversary. It may be that all of the concern is overblown. However, what is known so far suggests that Omicron is likely to bring at least mildly bad news, and maybe worse.
The best-case scenario is that Omicron is somewhat more contagious than Delta, but no more likely to cause severe illness, particularly in those who are already vaccinated. The worst-case scenario is that Omicron is both more contagious and better at defeating current vaccines, making it more likely to infect the immunized, and more likely to make them severely ill.
Most preliminary information suggests that Omicron may be closer to the best-case scenario. But that’s not a settled fact, and won’t be until well into December.
And even the best-case scenario could be somewhat worse than the status quo. A variant that is more contagious is most dangerous for the more than three million Canadian adults and teenagers without even one shot. If Omicron is more contagious, then Canada’s pandemic of the unvaccinated could be amped up by its arrival.
That’s why Canada has to once again put the pedal to the metal on the most basic pandemic-fighting measures: Universal masking in indoor public places, pumping lots of fresh air into those spaces, and doing everything possible to get first shots into the unvaccinated and booster shots into most everyone else.
And if it’s an Omicron worst-case scenario? Vaccine makers can tweak their chemical formulas – and Canada needs to buy tens of millions of new shots.
We can beat Omicron. There’s no reason to panic – if the right precautions are taken. Pronto.
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