As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, many experts are expressing cautious optimism that Canada has moved beyond the need for lockdowns and the widespread safety protocols that have marked much of the past 24 months.
But after two years of dealing with an unpredictable virus, they also say we must be ready to adapt at all times.
While hospitalizations and other pandemic markers appear to have declined or stabilized across the country, virologist Jason Kindrachuk says the COVID-19 crisis cannot be considered over until it calms down worldwide .
“The history of COVID-19 tells us that we should prepare for the potential of another concerning variant… Let’s at least be grateful that we have been in this situation before,” says Kindrachuk, an assistant professor at the University. of Manitoba.
“None of us want to take one step forward and end up having to take five or 10 steps back because we’re affected by what comes next.”
Jurisdictions began lifting public health measures over the past month, removing gathering limits, vaccination passports and mask mandates.
Ontario’s masking policy is set to end in most inland locations on March 21 – two years to the day since the Canada-US border was closed to non-essential travel as the SARS-CoV-2 strain of origin was spreading.
Several anniversaries of the pandemic approach this week as many Canadians reflect on the events of March 2020 that changed the perception of the virus from a distant unknown to a real threat in North America.
The arrival of COVID-19 here ushered in a period of transformation punctuated by stay-at-home orders and social distancing, and the massive impacts of the virus in the two years since have far exceeded some 40,000 deaths. nationally – a figure some experts say is probably much higher.
The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, the same day the NBA halted its season after a player tested positive. Ontario and Alberta declared states of emergency on March 17, while British Columbia and Saskatchewan followed the next day.
Since then, scientific advances have ushered in many COVID-19 vaccines and therapies to limit the strain on health systems, giving many experts the confidence to suggest that future lockdowns can likely be avoided.
A new variant could eclipse progress, but experts say it would likely take significant mutations in the virus to cause a return to the tougher March 2020 measures.
Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, is excited about how current vaccines have offered exceptional protection against serious illnesses, even though the virus has changed — at least to its current form.
“It’s no longer a crisis of the virus that has us at its mercy,” says Deonadan. “We have the tools to live a normal life…but it’s about spending the right money and having the political will to put those tools in place accordingly.”
Deonandan says new variants will “absolutely” emerge as transmission continues in the developing world where vaccines are scarce.
“Will these variants be troubling? We don’t know,” he adds. “But we have vaccine platforms that can produce new formulations very, very quickly.”
Dr Zain Chagla, an infectious disease expert at McMaster University in Hamilton, said while science has evolved at an “incredible” rate since 2020, the speed with which Delta and Omicron waves have taken hold means the creation Variant-specific stings over time could prove difficult.
He says other vaccine technologies are on the way, however, including efforts to create a pan-coronavirus shot that could protect against the current strain and everything to come.
“The next generation of COVID vaccines in a year or two may be very different…and may complement our current vaccines in helping to prevent infection and be more stable against variations in this virus,” says Chagla.
As restrictions lift across Canada, messaging from public health and political leaders has shifted focus from containing the virus to learning to live with it.
The change has been controversial, with some speculating that political pressure — not science — dictates how quickly some jurisdictions are removing the measures.
Experts recognize that many Canadians want to return to their pre-pandemic lifestyles, but emphasize that learning to live with COVID-19 as it transitions from a pandemic to an endemic phase does not mean the virus has disappeared.
Deonandan notes that endemic diseases like chickenpox and measles continue to circulate at low levels. And vulnerable people remain at risk.
“In an ideal scenario, life with COVID would look like…extremely low levels of endemicity with outbreaks that pose no threat to society, the hospital system, or most individuals,” he says, adding that COVID-19 remains dangerous to large segments of the population, including the elderly and immunocompromised
Kindrachuk says systems must be in place to ensure vulnerable people are not left behind as society abandons precautions.
This means that governments and policymakers must be able to quickly pivot and reintroduce measures such as hiding mandates if necessary.
“An essential part of learning about living with the virus is continuing to learn about the virus itself and adopting recommendations and protocols around that information,” says Kindrachuk.
“We are not yet at the point where this virus has become endemic.”
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