C/O Georgia Kirkos

McMaster experts share insights about the updated guidelines and their effects on the spread of Omicron

After relatively steady COVID-19 case counts throughout the fall, the highly contagious Omicron variant was identified in Ontario at the end of November. Since then, case counts have skyrocketed, surpassing 10,000 cases for the first time on Dec. 25. 

In response to the increase in COVID-19 cases, the Ontario government has updated public health guidelines, putting in place more restrictions for Ontario residents. This includes stricter gathering limits, closure of events and businesses, shortened quarantine times for individuals tested positive and limits on who can access a PCR test. 

The gathering limits in Ontario have been reduced to five people indoors or ten people outdoors. Weddings, funerals and religious services, when held indoors, are limited to 50 per cent capacity of the spaces they are held in. When held outdoors, they must allow for full social distancing between all attendees. Further, businesses and employers must ensure that their employees are working remotely, assuming that this is feasible. 

In terms of business closures, indoor dining, theatres, gyms and other similar spaces are required to close completely. Other spaces such as retail settings and public libraries can remain open at 50 per cent capacity. 

Zain Chagla, Associate Professor of Medicine at McMaster University, emphasized the importance of these closures for Ontario. According to Chagla, the highly contagious Omicron variant will likely infect a large portion of the population, regardless of public health measures; however, the public health guidelines should slow the spread of Omicron to prevent placing a strain on the healthcare system. 

“The hope is [that] public health measures might delay or slow down some of that spread, so [that the Omicron variant spreads] over two to three months, as compared to one month, where hospitals [could] easily become overwhelmed,” said Chagla. 

“The hope is [that] public health measures might delay or slow down some of that spread, so [that the Omicron variant spreads] over two to three months, as compared to one month, where hospitals [could] easily become overwhelmed.”

Zain Chagla, Associate Professor of Medicine at McMaster University

Chagla also noted that slowing the spread of Omicron should ensure that essential services still have enough people to operate them in the meantime.

“People, even if they are mild with COVID, still need to isolate and that has downstream impacts on the ability to staff hospitals, police, fire stations, grocery stores, etc. Again, spreading that out a little bit would at least allow some of those essential industries and essential care services to stay open,” explained Chagla. 

In addition to stricter COVID-19 related restrictions, Ontario has also made changes to their rules surrounding testing and isolation. 

Publicly funded PCR tests, previously available to anyone with symptoms of COVID-19, are now only accessible to symptomatic individuals deemed high-risk by the province. As well, most people who test positive for COVID-19 using a rapid antigen test will no longer be expected to confirm their test result with a PCR test; instead, the province has instructed those people to assume that they have COVID-19 and to isolate for the recommended period.

The recommended isolation period, which was previously ten days since the onset of COVID-19 symptoms, has been shortened to five days since the onset of COVID-19 symptoms, for vaccinated individuals and children under twelve. Ontario was not the only province to implement this change; British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have announced shorter isolation periods as well. 

Chief Medical Officers and Health Ministers of various provinces have given a range of reasons for the shortened isolation time, such as a far lower risk of transmission after five days, greater incentive to self-test when the quarantine time is shorter and prevention of unmanageable disruptions to the workforce. 

In terms of what the changing restrictions will mean for students at McMaster, Chagla pointed out that McMaster’s decision to delay the full return to campus to Feb. 7 will allow students extra time to obtain their third vaccine doses.

“I really want to reassure people, especially young individuals attending Mac, that [if] you get your booster [and] get your two doses, yes, there's a good shot that you would still get COVID in the next few months, but the outcomes are going to be really, really benign,” said Chagla. 

According to Lori Burrows, Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster, obtaining a booster shot is one of the most effective ways to combat the Omicron wave. 

According to Lori Burrows, Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster, obtaining a booster shot is one of the most effective ways to combat the Omicron wave. 

Burrows emphasized the importance of being careful in the meantime because, while Omicron is generally less severe for vaccinated individuals, it is still dangerous. 

“The natural course of evolution for any virus or pathogen is to become less pathogenic over time because if you're a virus, your goal is to infect as many hosts as possible. If you kill your host, that's a bad strategy from an evolutionary standpoint. So, most pathogens become less pathogenic over time, but better at transmitting,” explained Burrows. 

Burrows added that, while this seems to be the direction that Omicron is heading in, it isn’t there yet. 

“It's still killing people, so we have got to keep that in mind and we still have to be careful,” said Burrows.

“It's still killing people, so we have got to keep that in mind and we still have to be careful.”

Lori Burrows, Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster

Despite this, Burrows emphasized that some level of optimism is important because we have made significant progress in fighting COVID-19 over the last two years. As Burrows explained, we did not have vaccines, medications or any understanding of COVID-19 when the pandemic first began. Now, two years later, we are far better equipped to handle the pandemic. 

“We are in a better place than we were two years ago,” said Burrows. 

C/O Mark Sanchez

The pandemic will come to an end, but only with fair and meaningful restrictions

Cloth masks won’t cut it anymore, so you must purchase medical masks. No, not those, the expensive ones that are out of stock. If you’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, isolate yourself from family and friends for a minimum of ten days. You should definitely be back to work in five though. 

We will start to limit PCR testing, so instead, use rapid-antigen testing kits. Good luck finding those, but if you do, don’t use them because they’re not accurate. You need PCR. But wait, they have great news! Elite sports are allowed to run. Not the largest university athletics organization in Ontario though, they said elite. 

As hard as it may be to believe right now, all pandemics do eventually come to an end, though the fate of this one is clouded by the rising Omicron variant. Just as many started to regain hope for returning to a pandemic-free lifestyle, the Ford government placed further restrictions in Ontario in response to Omicron on Jan. 6, 2022. 

These changes included a halt to indoor dining, gyms, movie theatres and further capacity limits for essential and non-essential businesses. 

The execution of these changes, however, left many confused with questions about how this will aid in efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, with just one thought at the forefront of thousands of minds: make it make sense. 

How exactly does this response fit into the potential end of the COVID-19 pandemic? First, it’s important to note that this alleged “end” cannot be abrupt, but one so gradual that COVID-19 will become something that the world simply has to learn to coexist with. 

This may sound frightening at first, but recall that the human race has been doing this for centuries with viruses such as influenza and measles. 

After establishing that COVID-19 isn’t going away, governments must set clear and realistic goals of how life is expected to be like upon endgame and take measures that directly result in said goals. At some point, the World Health Organization would declare when the pandemic is officially over, after measuring each country’s success in controlling case counts, or hospitalizations and deaths at the very least. 

This would mark the endemic, or a post-pandemic state many would call the “new normal”. The endemic would mean reaching a somewhat steady-state of manageable cases, but how many is not exactly a scientific question, but a social one. 

Omicron has proven to be an ultra-contagious variant so different as a result of mutations that it has managed to evade detection by immune defences gathered through previous infections and even vaccines.

That being said, Omicron essentially marks the beginning of when the virus will eventually max out in its ability to drastically mutate and make large evolutionary jumps. 

New variants would still arise every so often again, much like the flu, but booster vaccines that are better catered to new mutants will also continue to evolve, as will the human immune system. 

Additional measures and meaningful restrictions can effectively reduce hospitalizations caused by Omicron and give the general population a chance to boost their vaccinations. After all, it’s easy to point out that a major barrier preventing the COVID-19 pandemic from evolving into a flu-like endemic is hospitalizations and deaths. 

With over 100,000 active cases in the province, this is more important now than ever. 

Despite this, the request still seems to remain: make it make sense. As long as healthcare pursues a capitalist model, anything experts will say may be perceived as persuasion and manipulation rather than facts that fuel an effort to safeguard the public. 

Living in low-income areas where healthcare may not be accessible is conducive to (valid) feelings of confusion and neglect. 

Naturally, the first community that government officials turn to for information and guidance is the scientific one. Where most governments fall short is listening to research done by the social science and humanities community. 

Time and time again, social scientists have identified how public health communication can impact the way people respond and act. Especially since this crisis so heavily relies on behavioural changes on a massive scale, social science can be used to align human behaviour with scientific recommendations. 

The public continues to announce their frustration on further restrictions and lockdown measures that don’t seem to offer any slivers of hope. Some have even drawn comparisons between COVID-19 and suicide death rates, implying the importance of one over the other. 

However, ranking equally important issues and insinuating the dismissal of one will not solve nor validate the other. 

So how exactly can the government induce restrictions that appease the general public? It’s impossible. What’s completely plausible though, is alleviating mass confusions that accompany tighter regulations. 

Lockdowns and public health measures will continue to seem like a performance act to the public unless they’re joined by measures that rebuild the damages inflicted by for-profit agendas on our healthcare system. It may be the key to reaching the endgame before running out of greek alphabet letters. 

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