With Thanksgiving around the corner, health experts are advising Canadians to exercise caution as new variants of the COVID-19 virus swirl across the country.
“This is a different Thanksgiving than the past few,” Colin Furness, infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, told Global News.
Even as COVID-19 protections diminish in Canada, cases are on the rise and the risk of exposure to the virus is the “highest it’s been,” he said.
According to Furness, an uptick in new sub-variants like Omicron’s BQ.1.1 just as Canadians begin to live a “so-called return to normal” life with most restrictions lifted, “is actually helping the foe (COVID-19) be more successful.”
“We have a greater risk this Thanksgiving,” he said.
“We’re doing everything we can to equip this virus to beat us and the virus is obliging,” he added. “We’re giving it the perfect conditions to evolve and it’s doing that.”
And, with a “failing acute healthcare system,” those who get sick with the virus may not even have a hospital bed available for them should they need care.
“When we think about Thanksgiving, getting together, affection, love and being thankful for what we have, it would be really tragic for (family members) to end up in the emergency room or being admitted to the hospital where there is no place for you,” said Furness.
In Canada, nursing job vacancies remain high, according to the Canadian Federation of Nurses Union, the largest nurses’ organization in the country.
Not only is the shortage impacting patients, but the strain nurses are also currently feeling is fueling an “exodus” from the profession, the union said in a press release from Oct. 4.
And, more Canadian doctors and medical professionals reported burnout and considered suicide over the past year as compared to before the pandemic, a Canadian Medical Association survey from late Aug. found.
In recent weeks, COVID-19 disease indicators, including weekly case counts, have increased in Canada, Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam warned on Friday.
“Virus transmission is occurring across the country,” she said during a news conference, noting hospital trends are also still elevated.
“The Omicron late summer waves appears to have declined very gradually before picking up again after only a brief leveling off in many areas.”
As many head indoors this fall and winter, increasing contacts and potential exposure to the virus, Tam also warned Canada could see even an even further rise of COVID-19 activity.
As of Oct. 1, there were 4,945 people hospitalized in Canada with COVID-19, with 298 in the ICU.
According to Furness, vaccination is an important protection Canadians need to stay safe from the virus this Thanksgiving, and beyond.
“Vaccination is one of the few protections that we still have,” he said.
On Friday, Health Canada announced it had approved Pfizer’s bivalent booster, designed to target Omicron’s BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants, which are the current dominant strains of the virus in the nation.
The shot has been approved for Canadians aged 12 and older and can be given at least three to six months following the required two doses for full vaccination, or a booster. It is to be given in a 30-microgram dose.
The jab now becomes the second bivalent vaccine to get federal approval after Moderna’s modified booster was authorized last month for use.
As seasonal Influenza vaccines begin to be rolled out across the country in the coming weeks, Tam also noted this jab can be given at the same time as COVID-19 vaccines to people over the age of five.
Tam said COVID-19 population immunity is falling across the country as more people are waiting beyond six months to get their booster shot, noting Canada’s booster coverage has remained quite low since early Sept.
Only half of Canada is vaccinated with an additional dose of the vaccine, Tam said.
How to stay safe on Thanksgiving
Before gathering this Thanksgiving, Furness advises Canadians to take rapid tests, ensuring they swab their nose and throats, but to also remember a positive result doesn’t immediately show up.
“Rapid tests can give you a false sense of security that is actually really quite dangerous,” Furness said. “Do rapid tests but also remember to pay attention to symptoms.”
Aside from vaccination and at-home rapid testing, Devon Greyson, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population, says clean air is important, recommending outdoor gathering, opening windows or using air filters.
“COVID-19 is still around and is still a danger,” Greyson told Global News.
It’s also important to remember members of the community who are immunocompromised and at a higher risk to the virus, Greyson said.
“Even if they’re not able to join a dinner in person, we can reach out – whether that’s dropping off a meal or just giving them a call to let them know that you care and haven’t forgotten them,” they said.
“It’s been a long pandemic for those vulnerable people, and we should let them know they’re still in our hearts.”
— With files from Global News’ Aaron D’Andrea