Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday April 13, 2022
Just how bad is COVID-19’s sixth wave?
Hamilton’s public school board is writing a letter to the provincial government asking for the now-lifted mask mandate to be restored. Halton is back to having outbreaks at long-term-care facilities and at least one Haldimand-Norfolk LTC facility is back to restricting visitors, again due to COVID.
Further afield, some schools in the London area are reverting to online learning because their staff and student ranks are so hard hit. And one hospital in Waterloo Region is closing its emergency room overnight because it no longer has staff to keep it open.
Anecdotally, more and more of us are saying we now see more COVID among our families, friends and networks than at any other time during the pandemic. And, most ominously, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths are climbing — again.
There is no secret about why this is happening now. Yes, it’s partly because of the BA.2 subvariant which is even more transmissible than Omicron. But in large part, this is happening because of the lifting of restrictions and public safety measures.
Don’t believe that? Check out the recent report from Public Health Ontario, which strongly links the onset of the new wave to the premature ending of mask mandates. It is an agency of the provincial government, by the way. Its report says, in part: “Epidemiological trends in Ontario have demonstrated signs of provincial resurgence since the end of February 2022. Close monitoring of epidemiological trends since March 21, 2022 (date of mask mandate removal), suggests a corresponding temporal association with a subsequent increase in confirmed coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases, per cent positivity, and hospitalizations. The full impact of lifting masking and other measures may not yet be observable, given limited PCR testing eligibility and lagging hospitalization data.” Note this provincial agency is warning that while we’ve seen the beginning of a major surge, we probably haven’t seen the end or the peak of it yet.
Dr. Peter Jüni, respected scientific director of the provincial science advisory table (which is being folded into Public Health Ontario), agrees. Speaking with Spec health journalist Joanna Frketich, Jüni argued this wave is fuelled by dramatic changes in behaviour, such as removing masks and not being careful in crowded settings, especially indoors.
Given all this, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, said in a rare public statement this week that he would “strongly recommend” Ontarians continue to wear masks in crowded indoor settings. Is a strong recommendation enough? Looking around at our city streets, sidewalks, public buildings, restaurants and bars, what do you think? In our experience, in some settings as many as half of the people are masked. But never more than half, and often less. Often much less. A photo of a crowd at a recent Raptors game showed a mass of people, with a smattering of masks visible.
We could have a lovely debate about reinstating mask mandates, but at this point that’s about all it would be — a lovely debate. Because Doug Ford has an election campaign to wage, and the last thing he wants is to be seen as retreating on reopening the province after two long and rugged years in the shadow of the pandemic. And an important part of Ford’s base consists of people who aren’t fans of pandemic public health policies that infringe on their personal freedoms. They are the folks who say we must “learn to live with” COVID-19, and we should all respect their opinion. But should it be the basis for public health policy?
In this pandemic, a lot can change and quickly, as we have seen repeatedly. It is possible that the sixth wave will have less serious impacts on health care, on education and on Ontario families. It’s too early yet to say with certainty that metrics such as hospitalizations and ICU admissions are a critical problem — that’s why they are called lagging indicators, because they lag behind the actual spread of the virus.
So if you’re an optimist, you are hoping that something like that happens. But if you’re a pessimist, or a realist armed with our pandemic experience to date, you might be wondering about what happens if the opposite is the case. Then, that strong recommendation might seem vastly inadequate. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)