Taking prudent precautions against COVID-19

Students were back in class this week, a welcome return. In-class schooling is good for learning. The routine of being back at school is important for the mental health of our children.

In the coming weeks, more of us will be returning to the office as employers implement hybrid work arrangements to have employees in the workplace two or three days a week.

It’s like life is back to normal. Except, of course, the pandemic continues.

We must acknowledge then that a return to pre-pandemic routines, while welcome in many ways, carries risks and that prudent precautions remain necessary to mitigate those risks.

That’s because in some ways we are in uncharted territory. Many of the public health restrictions that provided vital protections through previous COVID-19 waves have been eased or removed entirely. There are no longer mandatory mask requirement for schools. The five-day isolation for COVID-19 is gone. At universities, the public health requirements differ from one campus to another. The science table, which provided independent science-based advice, has been dismantled.

Against this backdrop, the public health messaging, at least in Ontario, has become less urgent. There is no cri de coeur about masking or vaccines. There is no infusing the population with the essential message that such measures continue to save lives if employed.

In short, there is less a sense that this continues to be a collective fight against COVID-19. Rather, we’re left feeling that we’ve been left to our devices to navigate what lies ahead.

So what does lie ahead?

It’s not clear. The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 had dropped as of Aug. 29 and the number of intensive care patients was below levels previously seen, both encouraging indicators.

But looking ahead, public health officials expect to see in increase in cases. That seems inevitable with the return of in-office work and school and cooler weather, which will mean more time indoors, less physical distancing and more opportunities for COVID-19 to spread.

In a joint statement this week, chief medical officers of health cautioned that evolving strains of the SARS-CoV2 virus, waning immunity from vaccines or infection more than six months ago and the onset of other seasonal diseases, like the flu, threaten to further tax an already strained health-care system.

The warning signs are already there. A recent economic briefing note from CIBC noted that it’s not lockdowns but employee illness now that is impacting businesses. “The Omicron variant has been associated with a significant upturn in total hours worked lost due to illness this year,” the note stated.

Sensible and known precautions can help blunt those health impacts. That starts with wearing a mask in public indoor settings.

Get boosted. New bivalent vaccines are becoming available that are tailored to protect against the Omicron variants. Health Canada has authorized Moderna’s bivalent vaccine for adults.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends that individuals age five to 64 be offered a COVID-19 booster this fall with a focus on those who are at increased risk of severe illness. NACI also recommends the bivalent version should be the vaccine of choice but if this version is not available, other vaccines offer good protection.

The science is clear. Vaccines protect you from getting seriously ill and dying from COVID-19 but that protection does wane over time. Yet, vaccination efforts in Ontario seem to have stalled. Just half of Ontario’s population has received primary series of vaccines and one booster.

That’s one critical mission for public health officials this fall, to resurrect campaigns to inform people about the compelling reasons to get a booster and take steps to ensure vaccination clinics are easily available.

In their statement, medical officers of health recommend staying at home when sick, especially if you have a fever and cough, and washing your hands regularly.

Work is also needed to better understand COVID-19. One of the final recommendations from the science table is for a comprehensive strategy to understand and manage what’s known as “long COVID” when symptoms persist for more than four weeks. That’s another reminder that this virus continues to exact a toll and for some, that toll is long-term and debilitating.

This return to normal depends on the prudent precautions we take. They are critical, for our individual and collective health.