As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into a third year, many experts are expressing cautious optimism that Canada has passed the need for lockdowns and the widespread safety protocols that marked much of the last 24 months.
But after two years of dealing with an unpredictable virus, they also say we should be ready to adapt at any moment.
While hospitalizations and other pandemic markers appear to have dipped or stabilized throughout the country, virologist Jason Kindrachuk says the COVID-19 crisis can’t be considered over until it subsides across the globe.
“The history of COVID-19 tells us we should be preparing for the potential of another variant of concern…. Let’s at least be appreciative that we’ve been in this situation before,” says Kindrachuk, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba.
“None of us want to take a step forward and end up having to take five or 10 steps backwards because we get hit with what comes next.”
Jurisdictions began lifting public health measures over the last month, axing gathering limits, vaccine passports and mask mandates.
Ontario’s masking policy is set to end in most indoor places on March 21- two years to the day that the U.S.-Canada border closed to non-essential travel as the original SARS-CoV-2 strain spread.
Several pandemic anniversaries are at hand this week as many Canadians reflect on the events from March 2020 that changed the perception of the virus from a faraway unknown into a real threat in North America.
COVID-19’s arrival here ushered in a transformative period punctuated by stay-at-home orders and social distancing, and the virus’s far-reaching impacts in the two years since have gone well beyond the nearly 40,000 deaths nationwide – a figure some experts say is likely much higher.
The World Health Organization declared the global pandemic on March 11, 2020, the same day the NBA shut down its season after a player tested positive. Ontario and Alberta declared states of emergencies on March 17, while British Columbia and Saskatchewan followed the next day.
Since then, scientific advancements have ushered in numerous COVID-19 vaccines and therapies to limit strain on health-care systems, giving many experts the confidence to suggest future lockdowns can likely be avoided.
A new variant could dwarf progress, but experts say it would likely require significant mutations to the virus to prompt a return of the more stringent March 2020 measures.
Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist with the University of Ottawa, is buoyed by how current vaccines have offered exceptional protection against severe disease even as the virus has changed – at least up to its current form.
“This is no longer a crisis of the virus having us at its mercy,” Deonadan says. “We have the tools to live a normal life … but it’s a matter of spending the right money and having the political will to enact those tools accordingly.”
Deonandan says new variants will arise “absolutely” as transmission continues in the developing world where vaccines are scarce.
“Will those 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 with Hamilton’s McMaster University, says that while science has evolved at an “incredible” pace since 2020, the rapidity with which the Delta and Omicron waves took hold means creating variant-specific jabs in time could prove difficult.
He says other vaccine technologies are underway, however, including efforts to create a pan-coronavirus injection that could protect against the current strain and whatever comes next.
“The next generation of COVID vaccines in a year or two may be very different … and may complement our current vaccines by helping prevent infection and be more stable against variations of this virus,” Chagla says.
As restrictions lift across Canada, messages from public health and political leaders have switched in emphasis, from containing the virus to learning to live with it.
That shift has been controversial, with some speculating that political pressure – not science – is dictating how quickly certain jurisdictions scrap measures.
Experts acknowledge that many Canadians want to return to pre-pandemic lifestyles, but they stress that learning to live with COVID-19 as it shifts from a pandemic to endemic phase doesn’t mean the virus is gone.
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, the way living with COVID would look is … extremely low levels of endemicity with outbreaks happening that are not a threat to society, the hospital system or to most individuals,” he says, adding that COVID-19 remains dangerous to large segments of the population, including older individuals and the immunocompromised
Kindrachuk says systems need to be in place to ensure the vulnerable don’t get left behind as society drops precautions.
That means governments and policy-makers must be able to pivot quickly and reintroduce measures like masking mandates if needed.
“A critical part of learning to live with the virus is continuing to learn about the virus itself and adopting recommendations and protocols around that information,” Kindrachuk says.
“We aren’t at the point yet where this virus has become endemic.”