As the news first spread that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 had entered Canada, Ottawa resident Saad Khan calculated his personal risk tolerance for a very important event — and he decided it was worth it.
“On Dec. 16, I took the risk — by seeing the new Spiderman movie,” he said.
Khan said he wore two masks and refrained from eating popcorn or buying any sweet treats. The movie, he said, was “amazing.”
Across the country, Canadians have been grappling with ever-changing restrictions as COVID-19 — and our ability to treat, prevent and fight it — changed, too.
From staying home to dining indoors with distancing, from wearing three-layer cloth masks to wearing N95 masks, public health advice has been shifting as the science evolves, and Canadians like Khan have been doing their best to keep up.
Still, Khan says it’s been “pretty confusing.”
He’s not alone. As restrictions come and go, many Canadians are starting to live by their own rules — even if those rules are more or less stringent than what public health officials advise.
Susan Murphy said in a message to Global News that she feels safest when she’s “staying at home” in Ottawa.
“I will meet friends outdoors and distanced, which is more challenging in the winter!” Murphy said.
Another Twitter user said in a reply to Global News that they are “way past the point of freaking out anymore.”
“I just go about my life,” they said.
“We’ll all contract this thing someday like we do with the flu anyhow.”
What do doctors advise?
The risk calculation is about to shift once again for Canadians living in Ontario. As of Jan. 31, they’ll have the option of dining indoors again as restaurants and bars reopen with a 50 per cent capacity limit.
Medical experts say everyone will have their personal risk tolerance levels when that day comes — but there are also some firm facts to consider as you decide whether to go out.
“If you go to a restaurant now, (it’s) pretty much guaranteed someone there is infected and probably infectious. The numbers are just pointing in that direction,” said Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.
“But if there is good quality mask-wearing, if there’s high-quality ventilation, people are keeping their distance and are minimizing the time they spend there, you reduce the risk appreciably — not to zero, obviously.”
But determining the level of risk, he said, “is complicated.”
“At the individual level, it comes down to how much you can tolerate infection in your life — because it’s going to get into your life,” Deonandan said.
For example, Deonandan has a child under five who can’t get vaccinated. He said people in his position are “going to be a lot more concerned.”
“So I’m not taking any of these risks, because I don’t want to run the risk of exposing my child to possible infection,” he said.
The other half of the equation, Deonandan added, is “thinking about the population risk.”
“Our hospitals are being challenged,” he said.
“Is it ethical to be exposing yourself to infection, even if your individual probability of having a bad reaction is low?”
Hospital capacity is also a part of the individual risk calculation, according to Dr. Matthew Miller, who is an associate professor of infectious diseases and immunology at McMaster University.
Hospitalizations from the Omicron wave, which has just seen its case counts crest, according to the federal government’s public health figures, won’t be happening “for several weeks still,” he said.
While the risk of being hospitalized after receiving three doses of a vaccine is “extraordinarily low,” Miller said, you might want to consider whether the hospitals will have the capacity to help you if that does happen.
“I feel good knowing that if I were to get really sick, I know I’m going to get excellent care and probably be fine,” Miller said.
“(But) if our hospital system is stretched to the limit, that may not necessarily be the case.”
Still, Miller added that Canadians “don’t need to live our lives in fear of Omicron.”
“However, I also don’t think we want to go and put ourselves in situations where the risk of contracting even what might be a mild infection is extremely high,” he said.
COVID fatigue and changing restrictions
In response to a Global News tweet asking about Canadians’ personal risk assessments, one user made it clear they’re done with the pandemic.
“I have had three vaccines (Moderna) and COVID twice. There’s no escaping this thing,” they wrote.
“So we need to keep on living.”
This feeling of pandemic fatigue has been one of the ongoing struggles for health officials, Miller said. Part of the issue, he explained, is that effective public health messaging is “simple” because you “don’t want there to be confusion.”
“Unfortunately, reality is not simple, and there is a lot of nuance,” Miller said.
“And the more you add nuance to guidance that was once simple, the more people are confused, and so I really sympathize with the public who are feeling fatigued and confused.”
But Deonandan had a word of hope for those feeling tired and overwhelmed as the pandemic inches closer to its two-year anniversary.
“One of the positive aspects of Omicron is that it’ll be over faster, so we’re not asking people to bear down for months on end. It’s weeks, and this wave will be done, probably, before spring. Well before spring,” Deonandan said.
“We’ll see what the receding tide holds for us. Hopefully, it’s the gift of immunity. So this is probably the last great battle of COVID before we settle into some new kind of normal.”