The rapid spread of Omicron could strengthen our collective immunity to COVID-19.  But at what cost ?

The rapid spread of Omicron could strengthen our collective immunity to COVID-19. But at what cost ?

It feels like everyone knows someone who has Omicron.

Maybe you got it, or your friend did. Maybe your workplace is in an epidemic. Or you saw on the news that another celebrity, athlete, or politician tested positive.

There is this growing feeling that catching the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is inevitable, perhaps even welcome – as if, after two years of collective anxiety over the infection, we can all be done with it and gain hard-earned immunity. .

But, like everything with COVID-19, the reality is more complicated.

Many medical experts who have spoken to CBC News – including infectious disease specialists, virologists and epidemiologists – have pointed out that while infection with the virus is much more likely now, it is still worth looking out for. strive to avoid or, at the very least, to delay.

“The dangerous temptation is to just let Omicron burn populations while trying to increase immunization coverage,” said Dr David Naylor, who led the federal investigation into the 2003 SARS outbreak and co-chairs the group. federal government COVID-19 immunity work. .

That’s because there are huge societal benefits in limiting the number of infections that build up at one time – reducing the strain on a stretched and thin hospital system, on the one hand – and huge costs though. we don’t. Already, hospitalizations are reaching new heights, staff shortages are hitting various industries and countless Canadians can end up with serious infections or long-term health effects.

This Omicron wave will certainly help boost immunity, “but at a potentially very high cost,” said Angela Rasmussen, virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

It could even be the “last big push” for the virus to become endemic, said Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, referring to a time when a threat like SARS-CoV-2 continues to grow. flow, but at a manageable baseline. level.

“And there are people who say it’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s not a good thing to get there at this price.”

WATCH | Omicron drops hospital staff as hospitalizations increase:

Omicron cuts hospital numbers as hospitalizations increase

The Omicron variant has dealt hospitals a double blow – increasing patient numbers and plummeting staff levels due to illness and isolation requirements. 2:44

Immunity strengthens a “silver lining”

It is difficult to determine how many people are infected with Omicron, as limited access to official PCR tests in much of the country is scramble our data.

We are sure to be missing tens of thousands of new cases, but even the reported figure – a seven-day national average of more than 40,000 daily infections – is at an all-time low that is sobering.

Fortunately, the Omicron variant is linked to less severe disease than its dominant predecessor, Delta, especially for those who get the added protection of at least two doses of the vaccine. Yet he’s also more able to evade immunity through previous infection and vaccination, allowing him to move through care homes, hospitals, and households at a likely closer rate. measles than the original virus.

The usual numbers set means that some of those infected end up seriously ill – including a slight increase in young children, who are not yet vaccinated – and a lower percentage of a massive number of total cases is bad news both for overwhelmed hospital teams and for anyone in need of this level of medical care.

Less than a month after the start of this Omicron wave, more Ontarians and Quebecers are already hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any other time during the pandemic. (Evan Mitsui / CBC)

The “silver lining” of the rapid spread of the variant is that most infected people will recover and benefit from a boost in their immunity during the process, especially if they are also vaccinated, said Dr Dominik Mertz, infectious disease specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“And that process is just a lot faster, with a variant that spreads so quickly, compared to a variant where you might be more able to slow it down,” he said. “But if this wave lasts for weeks and weeks, many healthcare systems could be overwhelmed. And that’s really the concern at this point.”

Even now, less than a month after the Omicron wave started, more Ontarians and Quebecer are already hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any other time during the pandemic, various provinces are cancellation of scheduled surgeries for patients with cancer and other conditions and infections among health workers in several facilities are the cause of a staff shortage at the crisis level.

“I think in this wave we are going to see the consequences of a health system at its breaking point more than we will just see hospitals full of COVID patients,” Rasmussen said.

“The dangerous temptation is to just let Omicron burn populations while trying to increase immunization coverage,” said Dr. David Naylor, who co-chairs the federal government’s COVID-19 immunity task force. (Evan Mitsui / CBC)

Possible “change” in the pandemic

Many medical experts are urging people to avoid becoming infected now, if they can, as provincial leaders reinstate measures such as virtual schooling, curfews and restrictions on indoor activities in the city. hope to slow the spread of Omicron.

Yet stopping the transmission of this variant is proving to be a daunting task – and many Canadians cannot avoid exposure because of their work or living conditions – the harsh reality is that tens of thousands more people should expect to receive COVID-19 in the coming weeks, with some becoming seriously ill while others showing persistent symptoms.

If this massive spike in infections marks the coronavirus’ turn towards endemicity, Canada will need to decide what constitutes an acceptable level of long-term COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths, said Dr Srinivas Murthy, Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“Because it won’t be zero and our healthcare system won’t collapse every winter,” he said. “Which will it be somewhere in between, and it’ll mean hundreds of deaths a year or thousands of deaths a year, or whatever you have.”

The Omicron variant is linked to a less severe disease than its dominant predecessor, Delta, especially for those who receive the added protection of at least two doses of the vaccine. (Evan Mitsui / CBC)

There is no guarantee that Omicron will put Canada on this path, and the unequal vaccination rates around the world mean that much of the world remains largely unprotected against this virus – providing a wide range of hosts to be infected and the opportunities for SARS-CoV-2 to continuously evolve.

“Maybe we will get blanket immunity against Omicron and the earlier variants, but we have to understand that while there is still transmission, there is always a possibility that other variants will emerge,” said Jason Kindrachuk, professor. assistant in medical and infectious microbiology. diseases at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

“So I think that could be a change, definitely, in the pandemic… whether or not that’s the thing that will change the overall patterns of transmission, I don’t know. And that’s something I’m definitely concerned about. “

Living with the virus may require ‘massive changes’

If the pandemic begins to slide into an endemic state in Canada, we still don’t know exactly what it will look like and how often COVID-19 will erupt and disrupt everyday life.

Living with this virus in the long term may therefore require a complete overhaul of our approach to keep it at bay.

According to Yonatan Grad, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases Melvin J. and Geraldine L. Glimcher at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston, this means investing heavily in protection, like masking and enhancing the ventilation.

“Past pandemics have brought about massive changes in the way we live which we accept as normal,” he said in a Q&A shared by Harvard in August.

“The mosquito nets on our doors and windows have helped keep mosquitoes that carry yellow fever and malaria out. Sewage systems and access to clean water have helped to eliminate the typhoid and cholera epidemics. long-term improvements in individual and overall health.

But there’s no easy fix – and no way to predict exactly what the future holds or how long a hard-earned immunity from Omicron will last.

What is clear is that COVID-19, in one form or another, is set to stick around – meaning this disease is on top of other viral infections such as the flu, which typically results in approximately 12,200 hospitalizations nationwide and 3,500 deaths each year.

Kindrachuk puts it this way: “How prepared are we to add another infectious disease to this potential list of things that we face year after year?” “

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