With cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant of climbing each day in many provinces, health experts are once again advising Canadians to cut back on their social contacts — warning that two doses of vaccine don’t provide the same protection that they used to.
Grandparents Pat and Karen Ferguson are approaching this holiday season with care.
“With an immunocompromised daughter and a newborn baby coming into our house on a regular basis, we’re extremely cautious,” Pat Ferguson, from Amherstburg, Ont., told Global News.
“Nobody’s allowed in our house that hasn’t been at least triple vaxxed,” he said. “Our immediate bubble is just my two daughters, two sons-in-law, and the baby. We have our groceries ordered in and stuff like that, but we’ve done that all along.”
Holidays usually mean seeing friends and family and attending parties and other social events. While current public health regulations still allow many of these things, experts warn that you should carefully consider the risks of socializing with others as COVID-19 cases grow.
“We have to constantly remind each other that at the end of the day, we don’t want anybody to get sick,” Karen Ferguson said.
Here are some questions to ask before you go to a restaurant, visit with friends or attend an event.
What is your own risk?
This is an important thing to think about, said Thomas Tenkate, an associate professor in the school of occupational and public health at Ryerson University. He suggests you consider whether you have risk factors for severe illness, such as underlying health conditions, or if you’re immunocompromised.
Part of your risk, too, is your exposure to others and whether you might pass it on to them, he said.
“If you’re at work with kids or if you work in health care or you work in aged care, I think that’s a factor to consider because you don’t want to sort of spread it to the people you work with or the people you care for,” he said.
Unfortunately, we can’t just rely on vaccines as a safeguard anymore, said Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious diseases physician and senior clinician scientist at Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto.
Right now, she said, it’s about “stepping back and saying we have to give up the sense that if you’re with other vaccinated people, it’s okay.”
“We’re back to where we were before vaccines, which isn’t that vaccines aren’t offering some kind of protection, but it’s the recognition that with Omicron, the vaccine, while it still protects you pretty well against more severe disease, does not protect nearly so well against just getting infected and transmitting to other people.”
However, booster shots could make a huge difference, she said.
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“The evidence is that a booster dose now will provide you with very significant additional protection, not only additional protection against severe disease, but also additional protection against your risk of getting mild disease and being able to transmit it to others.”
If you’re eligible, both McGeer and Tankate urge you to get a booster dose as soon as you can.
How many people are attending?
McGeer suggests that you look at factors other than just vaccination status when making your decision to attend a social event, like how many people are there.
“From the perspective of stopping the virus’ transmission, every one (person) you add is worse,” she said. “It’s not about setting limits but saying, ‘How small can I make it?’”
Two people are safer than three, and three are safer than four, she said. While public health officials have to set an upper limit on social gatherings, like 10 people, for example, “That shouldn’t be interpreted as, ‘I can go to 10 and not worry,’” she said.
This includes very large events like professional sports games, according to Canada’s chief public health officer, even though they are still allowed in many jurisdictions.
“We’ve seen superspreader events at a number of sports events already,” said Dr. Theresa Tam at a press conference Wednesday.
“Our recommendation is: don’t have mass gatherings.”
What is the setting?
Where and how the event is being held matters, Tenkate said.
“Is it indoor, is it outdoor? If it’s indoor, how ventilated it is, how many people there are, how long are you going to be there? What sort of activities are you going to do: talking or if it’s eating or if it’s some sort of concert?” he asked.
If it’s a large event with many people indoors in a crowded setting, and you’re planning to spend a long time there, he said, “I would say I’d probably give it a miss at this stage.”
Can you take precautions?
Consider whether or not you can wear a mask, Tenkate said, or maintain a good distance from other participants.
Making sure you have a well-fitting mask, opening windows at indoor events and keeping lots of distance can help, said Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer of Canada, at a press conference Wednesday.
Most importantly, he said, people who have any kind of symptoms should stay home.
McGeer said that taking rapid tests at a gathering can also help to cut down the risk.
“That won’t help as much as just not having them, right, because nothing is perfect, but it’ll add one more layer of protection,” she said.
With the uncertainty of Omicron on the heels of the holidays, the next few weeks will mean a lot of hard choices for everyone, McGeer said, but continuing to freely socialize could mean overwhelming the health-care system.
“Each of us, I think, has to now sit down and say, what can I give up without really harming my mental health? What’s the most important thing to hold on to? How can I make my contacts over Christmas be the best possible for me while providing minimal opportunities for the virus?”
-with files from Jamie Mauracher, Global News