Canada is shifting to 'living with the virus' — for better or worse
Boosting vaccination rate key to lifting COVID-19 measures, but uncertainty lies ahead
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Canada's pandemic response is rapidly shifting toward "learning to live with the virus" — where COVID-19 is eventually treated like other seasonal illnesses, surveillance is massively scaled back and public health measures are widely lifted.
But as some provinces move closer to easing restrictions after facing the deadliest month of the pandemic since COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, there appears to be a dramatic divide on what living with the virus actually means — and how it will work.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Friday Canada needs to find a more "sustainable" way to deal with the pandemic and all existing public health policies, including provincial vaccine passports, need to be "re-examined" in the coming weeks.
"What we need to do going forward, as we emerge out of this Omicron wave, is recognize this virus is not going to disappear," she said. "We do need to get back to some normalcy."
But even with record-high hospitalizations and ICU admissions that are only now beginning to show signs of declining nationally, public health officials and politicians across the country have already embraced this new pandemic strategy as they gear up to lift restrictions.
Saskatchewan set to lift all restrictions
Saskatchewan pivoted to living with the virus on Thursday by announcing further limits to PCR testing, ending the sharing of daily COVID-19 data and stopping the investigation of most outbreaks outside of hospitals and long-term care.
The shift came after Premier Scott Moe released a letter last Saturday lending support to protesters in Ottawa demanding an end to all vaccine mandates or a change in government, while also inaccurately claiming "vaccination is not reducing transmission."
Moe's comments are a huge shift in messaging from what he said just a few months ago, when the premier openly criticized the unvaccinated and imposed mandatory masking and proof of vaccination policies during a devastating fourth wave.
"As a government, we have been patient with those who have chosen to remain unvaccinated," he said on Sept. 16. "But the time for patience is over."
Fast forward to today, and while Saskatchewan has left current restrictions like mask mandates and vaccine certificates in place for now, Moe has hinted they won't last long — and he's not alone.
"For better or for worse, this is what's going to happen across the whole country," said Dr. Alexander Wong, an infectious diseases physician at Regina General Hospital and associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
"The question is, why are we in such a rush to do all of this? It's clearly political."
WATCH | Saskatchewan premier says COVID-19 restrictions 'ending very soon':
Alberta ready to reopen when hospitalizations drop
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he also hopes to lift all COVID-19 public health restrictions by the end of February if hospitalizations decline, but the situation is still showing no sign of slowing down as the province continues to routinely report double digit daily deaths.
"On our COVID ward right now, our hospital is full to the rafters," said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases physician and associate professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
"And I think at this point talking about, 'Well we're just going to go back to normal,' it doesn't feel normal yet and I think we do need a bit more of a cushion."
Saxinger said there is a "necessary transition" that will occur with the pandemic where Canada will move away from COVID-19 case counting, containing outbreaks and trying to find each case — but whether that should happen right now is still unclear.
"There comes a point, especially with Omicron which is so pervasive right now, where that's not really even feasible. It's like trying to isolate a tree in a burning forest — it doesn't necessarily make sense anymore," she said.
"Does this mean we have to accept the burning forest though?"
WATCH | COVID-19 not going away: Alberta's top doctor:
Saxinger said if Canada is planning on moving to a state where a background level of COVID-19 is expected without doing anything extreme to contain it, there has to be clear benchmarks for what level is acceptable and whether we will need to alter course.
"I really regret when people don't acknowledge that we might have to change our plan," she said. "To me right now, the discussion of learning to live with it seems early."
Ontario 'confident' that 'worst is behind us'
Ontario began easing public health restrictions at the end of January, with a plan to lift most remaining measures by mid-March, as the rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations remained on a downward trend despite the daily death toll continuing to rise.
"We're taking a cautious approach," Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Jan. 20, before adding he was "confident" the reopening plan would work and that "the worst is behind us."
But Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said Thursday while there is a general improvement in the COVID-19 situation, the coming weeks "will continue to be difficult" for the province's hospital system.
WATCH | Ontario's top doctor says 'we've let our lives be controlled' by COVID-19:
"We're not out of the woods yet. We still have to be cautious," he said. "But we've learned significantly from the last two years and I believe we're in a much better position to learn to live with this virus and to be less fearful of it."
Moore said Ontario would be "monitoring the situation internationally," while other officials have also pointed to countries like Denmark and the U.K., which have recently lifted nearly all COVID-19 restrictions, as examples to watch closely for reopening.
"It's important to kind of keep an eye on people who are a little bit farther ahead than us as we're making plans," Saxinger said. "Because you don't want to have to relearn the lesson that's being learned elsewhere already."
But directly comparing Canada to countries with completely different demographics does not provide firm conclusions on what lies ahead here — especially when our vaccination rates are significantly lower.
"That's the difference between your hospitalizations not crushing you," Wong said.
Too early to 'declare victory'
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu warned Tuesday against the trend gaining traction worldwide to ease restrictions due to public pressure and pandemic fatigue, and cautioned that Omicron should not be underestimated.
"We are concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines — and because of Omicron's high transmissibility and lower severity — preventing transmission is no longer possible and no longer necessary," he said at a press conference.
"Nothing could be further from the truth. It's premature for any country either to surrender or to declare victory. This virus is dangerous and it continues to evolve before our very eyes."
Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, said learning to live with the virus shouldn't mean immediately lifting all public health measures going forward, adding we need to "bring the public along with us" and continue to watch the virus closely in the population.
"It doesn't mean we're going to go back to the state of normalcy and COVID is just going to be background noise in our lives," he said. "It means that we're constantly going to have to be vigilant."
With files from Christine Birak and Marcy Cuttler