What does living with COVID-19 as a society really mean? Here's what experts say
It’s about not living in fear, but also not denying COVID exists, says senior medical health officer
For Regina parent Miranda Klinger, the pivot to living with COVID will mean doing daily risk assessments and making tough decisions to protect her immunocompromised daughter.
"Kendal is double vaccinated and COVID could still mean hospitalization for her, and that's terrifying," Klinger said.
Saskatchewan officials say they will start treating COVID-19 like other communicable diseases. Premier Scott Moe announced on Tuesday that the province will end its vaccine passport policy on Monday, Feb. 14. The provincial government confirmed that other current public health orders, including a requirement to mask in indoor public spaces, will not be renewed past Feb. 28.
Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said all existing public health policies, including provincial vaccine passports, need to be "re-examined" in the coming weeks — because it's clear now that Canada and the rest of the world will be grappling with this virus for months or years to come.
Klinger has four daughters aged 14, 12, 10 and eight who take dance lessons and play competitive sports.
"I'm not sure what the future will look like for us, for things like that," Klinger said in an interview with CBC News. "I don't know what that looks like for them when we don't have those safeties in place for us."
PCR testing in the province is now only available by appointment — with many restrictions on who is eligible — and daily COVID-19 updates have stopped. Instead, the province will issue weekly reports on Thursdays.
Moe said although COVID-19 is not going away, people are done with having to follow public health orders, so "normalizing" the virus and learning to live with it is the achievable option.
"Travel, go to work, have dinner with your friends, go to the movies, go to your kids games — most importantly. You should do all of these things without constantly assessing if your every activity is absolutely necessary. What's necessary is your freedom," Moe said in a video released on social media last week.
Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said on Thursday that all residents "need to make decisions going forward based on our personal and family risk and with our understanding of what's happening at the community level."
Klinger said that even when mandates are lifted, her family will continue to wear masks, see other family members outdoors rather than indoors, and refrain from attending indoor activities where there are unmasked people.
"We'll just assess what we need to do and where we're going and what's the most important for our kids and figure it out kind of as we go," Klinger said.
Living with COVID 'doesn't mean ignoring it'
Dr. Cory Neudorf is the Saskatchewan Health Authority's interim senior medical health officer and a professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan. He said living with COVID means having a more thorough understanding of the virus and knowing how we have to adapt when we have waves coming through our community.
"It doesn't mean ignoring it. It doesn't mean pretending it doesn't exist," Neudorf told CBC News.
"That's not living with COVID. That's just denial. So what we need is to be smart about it, not be driven by fear, but arming ourselves with tools so that we can live with it and not have as high a chance of being severely affected by it."
Neudorf said that in the absence of provincial orders, public health will have to inform people where the virus is circulating, if it's increasing in certain areas and how people should be reacting.
He said wastewater studies will become more important, as will looking at sickness in the workplace or school absenteeism.
- Sask. to end COVID-19 proof of vaccination policy on Feb. 14, mandatory masking to remain until end of month
Neudorf also said common sense and applying the measures we've learned over the course of the pandemic will play a large role.
"We know it's effective to stay home if you're symptomatic and we need to carry those types of things forward," he said.
That also goes for wearing masks and avoiding large crowds if there's a viral outbreak in your community, Neudorf added.
"It's about recognizing the risk in context with other risks, being aware of how much is out there and then taking the appropriate precautions as necessary," he said.
He said that in the future, we might need a booster shot annually or every few years — similar to influenza — depending on how much the virus is circulating.
Matthew Cardinal is a COVID long hauler, server and bartender in Regina who was hospitalized with the virus for 19 days. CBC spoke with him when he was facing harassment while enforcing the province's proof-of-vaccination policy.
Cardinal said he'll still take precautions such as wearing a mask until his lungs are more recovered, but that he's feeling optimistic about the living with COVID approach, as are "most" of his customers.
"This [pandemic] has caused so much division in society. I'm just trying to look for unity now," Cardinal said.
"We have to start rebuilding friendships that we've lost, connections that we might've severed."
Multiple pieces of a puzzle
Dr. Stephen Lee, an infectious diseases physician and assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said living with COVID will be "multifactorial," with vaccinations and early therapeutics playing big roles.
He compared managing COVID in the long-term to a puzzle.
"It's possible that the way COVID looks in the future is that there's many solutions and there's going to be many pieces," he said.
Vaccines, especially a third booster shot, are very effective at reducing COVID infection, Lee says.
Canada's top doctor Tam said the country's priority should be to deploy as many booster shots as possible. But the immunization campaign has stalled, with 52 per cent of adults having had a third shot, according to CBC's vaccine tracker. In Saskatchewan, it's 49.7 per cent.
In addition, Lee said early therapeutics, such as the Paxlovid and the monoclonal antibody programs in the province that he's involved in, help reduce the chance of people infected with COVID from being severely infected and hospitalized.
Lee added that, "things like vaccine equity are very important to reduce the chance of a variant to pop up somewhere else."
"So I think it's multiple different pieces coming together that are going to make society go on."
Laura Tamblyn Watts is the founder and CEO of CanAge, a national seniors' advocacy organization. She said she would like to see seniors get their third and fourth shots of the COVID vaccine as fast as possible.
She said it's also important for seniors to "have the opportunity to not be mixing" with people who are unvaccinated.
For example, she said it's "better to have two separate areas as opposed to keeping everyone in the same waiting room" in doctors offices or hospitals, and making sure there are more appointments available.
"We also need to make sure that older people are able to get the services they need at home if possible," Tamblyn Watts said.
CanAge recently released a cross country report card on adult vaccinations looking at how well provinces are protecting older Canadians against not just COVID, but the flu, pneumonia and shingles.
Canada received a D-minus. Saskatchewan received a D.
"The Government of Saskatchewan is still not funding seniors-specific flu vaccines for those living outside of long-term care, leaving approximately 95 per cent of the provinces' seniors unprotected," said the report.
Tamblyn Watts says routine vaccinations for seniors need to be improved as restrictions are lifted.
"One of the best ways to keep us safe and well against COVID also means a strong immune system, which means not succumbing to pneumonia and flu and shingles," she said.
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