After more than a year of avoiding crowds, scrubbing our hands and wearing masks, infectious disease specialists say that the COVID-19 pandemic – as we know it – is coming to a close for Canadians.
“I think we’re actually there already,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist, when asked how soon Canadians can expect to return to their pre-COVID activities.
“I think that we can open up safely and get to our previous lives now.”
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But that doesn’t mean the pandemic is actually over for everyone, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“I think people will be surprised to find that in the last week, cases globally have gone up, not down,” Dr. Peter Singer, an advisor with the WHO, told Global News.
“This is far from over. Cases are increasing, and it’s not over till it’s over everywhere.”
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The Global end of COVID-19
Under international law, a pandemic is defined as a public health emergency of “international concern,” one that is an “extraordinary” event with the risk of international spread, “where international … coordination is needed” to address it, according to Singer.
That means that until the COVID-19 spread no longer meets that definition on a global scale, the pandemic isn’t technically over.
While Canada is setting its sights on back-to-normal, the disease continues to spread among nations that haven’t been able to secure enough vaccines. This poses a threat to us all, Singer said.
“In some parts of the world, the vaccination rates, even at one dose, are one per cent, two per cent, three per cent, five per cent,” Singer said.
“As long as that vaccine inequity or vaccine injustice holds, nobody is safe.”
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The more opportunities the virus has to spread and to live untreated in someone’s body, the more possibility there is that COVID-19 could develop new mutations — and therefore, new variants.
Some of these could threaten COVID-19 vaccine progress around the world, Singer warned.
“To be safe is for this fire to be put out everywhere in the world, because otherwise, if it’s burning anywhere, it’s going to be casting off embers that are going to ignite flames everywhere,” he said.
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If the epidemiological situation around the world were similar to the one in Canada, international organizations would be much closer to declaring an end to the pandemic. There’s an emergency committee at the WHO that meets “regularly” to assess whether the criteria required to declare a pandemic are still being met in the case of COVID-19, Singer said.
Those criteria are based on the definition of a pandemic, which Singer described as:
- a public health emergency of “international concern”
- an “extraordinary” event with the risk of international spread
- an event “where international … coordination is needed” to address it.
“Those criteria are still met and the public health emergency is still in effect,” Singer said.
In order to change this assessment — and officially declare the end of the pandemic — Singer said countries will need to ramp up their generosity when it comes to sharing vaccines.
The WHO has set a global goal for vaccination efforts. By September, the organization is hoping to see at least 10 per cent of the population of every country vaccinated. By December, the goal is to hit 30 per cent around the world.
“The problem is supply and demand, and in the short term, the way to deal with the supply problem is for countries that have doses to donate vaccine doses. About a billion doses will be needed between now and the end of the year to reach at least the initial targets,” Singer said.
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This is the only way to truly end the pandemic, according to Singer. It’s not as simple as saying it’s over. While there are boxes to check off, it’s unclear how it will be designated as finished globally.
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“The national security of Canada depends on vaccination in every country in the world and on suppressing this pandemic in every country in the world, otherwise it will just be generating variants that could come back to bite us,” he said.
“And that’s even before you get to the arguments from ethics that every human life is of equal value.”
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COVID-19 is a “tale of two pandemics,” Singer said — and according to Canadian infectious disease specialists, Canada’s COVID-19 story is in its final chapter.
“If you’ve been fully vaccinated, your risk of severe outcomes is essentially eliminated and you can go back to doing things that you did before,” Chakrabarti said — though provincial restrictions still prevent Canadians from a full return to normal for the time being.
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Recent discussions about COVID-19 in Canada have been framed in a way that taps into “people’s fears” that progress on COVID will be “taken away from us at the eleventh hour,” Chakrabarti said.
“I want to assure people that I think this is very unlikely, if not downright impossible.”
Chakrabarti isn’t alone in his optimism. Dr. Zain Chagla, who is also an infectious disease specialist, agreed that Canadians are “just at the cusp” of being able to get back to their normal lives.
“We’re coming soon to that point. Most of us can get a second vaccine in the next two to three weeks and a couple of weeks later are fully immune,” Chagla said, adding that this could bring us back to “pre-pandemic” conditions.
“There’s a little bit more time needed for some of our public expectations, in terms of masking and physical distancing, as part of our day-to-day lives. But that’s really rapidly starting to get smaller and smaller.”
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The specialists’ comments come amid enthusiastic vaccine uptake across the country. About 78 per cent of Canadians over the age of 12 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, and more than 44 per cent are fully vaccinated against the disease.
Canadians might not be aware of how good these vaccines actually are, according to Chakrabarti.
“We have really undersold what the vaccines can do. Even with variants, we still haven’t found a variant that will completely escape the effects of the vaccine, especially against the outcomes we worry about, which is hospitalization and death,” he said.
Clinical trial data from all four vaccines Canada has approved — Pfizer, Moderna, Janssen and AstraZeneca — showed that every single jab was extremely effective at preventing hospitalizations.
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Every time Canadian provinces have locked down, it’s been because COVID-19’s spread was overwhelming hospitals — and spread needed to be slowed in order to avoid forcing medical professionals to make impossible decisions. But with vaccines reducing the power of COVID-19’s bite, catching the disease doesn’t mean what it once did, according to Chagla.
“The disease becomes fundamentally different in people that are fully vaccinated as compared to those who are unvaccinated,” he said.
“After vaccines, that link between cases and hospitalizations is not as strong.”
Still, for Canadians, the highly successful vaccination rollout is setting a stage for a time when the country learns to live with COVID-19 — as we do with other diseases — as opposed to stopping in our tracks to prevent it.
This might take some time to get used to, according to Chakrabarti. “Shifting our perspective” will be an important part of going back to normal, he said.
“Looking at daily cases is not really productive anymore,” he said, noting the fact that an increase in cases won’t necessarily lead to an equivalent jump in hospitalizations anymore.
“I think this should be changed.”
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Chakrabarti added that a time will soon come when Canadians will have to enjoy parties, rather than wagging the finger at them.
“When we see groups of people doing things, even if it’s doing something that you may not be comfortable with, for example, an indoor party, we have to stop moralizing that,” he explained.
“If somebody has an indoor party at this point in time, it’s not something that’s going to set off a chain reaction that can then cause massive waves of infection and hospitalizations.”
Still, Chagla said there’s still a few weeks to go before Canadians can expect the only risk of a house party as being a noise complaint from the neighbours.
“There are populations that haven’t been reached by vaccines that can show themselves very quickly to strain health-care systems,” he said, pointing to the Waterloo region as an example — a region that saw a brief surge in cases driven by the Delta variant.
“It’s not catastrophic, but it is uncomfortable. So I think we’re just at the cusp.”
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And once we cross that threshold — which Chagla said could happen around “mid-to-late August” — Canadians will have to start getting used to brushing shoulders with one another again.
Chakrabarti recommended Canadians ease into it if they feel nervous.
“I’m not telling you to go straight to a Tool concert indoors, but you might want to start with having other vaccinated people over at your house for dinner and just getting comfortable with that feeling,” he said.
“Having people there — you realize that you won’t even think about it, once you become comfortable. And then you can slowly grade back up.”
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