The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 continues as Saskatchewan enters its third summer having to deal with the virus.
Experts say now more than ever public health needs to keep the message clear: keep up with proper vaccinations and booster shots.
“Pushing COVID-19 to the backburner is not going to help us individually or collectively,” said epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine.
Muhajarine said the power of vaccines to protect us against severe COVID-19 is a certainty, saying they are keeping the number of hospitalization low and fewer people are ending up in the ICU.
“A lot more public health messaging needs to address this,” said Mahujarine. ” It seems like the voices in public health have kind of disappeared over the past months but COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared. It is very much in our presence. People are still getting infected.”
Muhajarine explained that COVID-19 is affecting people on a more severe level and should not be compared to the common cold or flu, noting it is much worse and adding that the virus is constantly evolving and continues to disrupt our lives much more than a seasonal flu.
With new subvariant Omicron BA-4 and Omicron BA-5, Muhajarine said these new variants are considered more infectious and contagious.
“Will we see the kinds of case numbers going up and along with that hospitalizations that we are seeing in France, Portugal and many other European countries?” said Muhajarine. “It is on us to expect to see it and act accordingly, discuss it and message it accordingly. That is what prudent and safe sort of action and response will want.”
He said this lack of action, response, and expectation will mean people are not just going to face disruption of their lives, but we will continue to lose people to this virus. He said if people continue to view COVID-19 lightly the effects are only going to get worse.
“COVID will not just be gone in 10 days,” said Muhajarine. “It goes beyond even 14 days. It could be weeks, months and has been persistent. This is not something we want to get or risk continuing to get.”
He said fewer cases in the warmer summer months have been typical but next fall and winter could be a very different story — a reality other experts also stress as Omicron subvariants have made their way into the province.
“We do have clinical measurements,” said John Giesy, University of Saskatchewan professor and wastewater researcher. ” Some people where they are presenting at hospitals now are tested and were getting about 22 per cent are the Omicron subvariant BA-5.”
Giesy said his team at the University of Saskatchewan is now able to measure the level of the subvariants in the city’s wastewater. He said spikes in the Omicron BA-5 variant have taken off in the U.K. but added he is unsure if and when it will hit the province.
“It seems to be able to avoid immunity,” said Giesy, “either from vaccination or previous infection. It doesn’t seem at least so far in the U.K. to cause more severe disease than other subvariants of Omicron.”
The subvariant BA-5 may be in Saskatoon but it has yet to present itself in the wastewater in Regina. However, unlike Saskatoon, where the levels of the virus are so low they are barely detectable, the levels are much higher in the capital’s wastewater and the decrease there keeps stalling.
“We are dipping below the high point of the Delta wave, essentially,” said Tzu-Chiao Chao, University of Regina environmental proteomics scientist. ” It is still at a level where we are about halfway to the detection limit, so it is still fairly noticeable.”
Chao believes it’s just a matter of time before the subvariant shows in their wastewater as well. He said because of the known high transmission, the Omicron wave will cause more known cases than the Delta wave.
“Fundamentally the current situation right now probably for the next two months or so will hopefully continue to stay on the lower level of cases,” said Chao, “so the heath-care system will have free capacity.
“But, the big question is whether we will drive new hospitalization come the fall so that is our may concern right now.”
Chao said with these new subvariants constantly on the horizon, relief from the virus is not expected. He said the public may not feel that way as it seems to come and go like cold and flu seasons, but said the breaks between waves are much smaller and more support will be needed within the health care system. He said it would mean front-line workers will continue to work under extreme stress almost 80 per cent of the year.