OTTAWA — It may not be a public health disaster.
But it can be.
This is what the “Freedom Convoy” on Parliament Hill is fighting for, according to some contagious disease experts: a role of the dice in a big game of life and death, where the teasing postponement of COVID-19’s Omicron wave could be delayed with a resurgence of infections and dangerously crowded hospitals if – as many protesters say they want – all pandemic health restrictions are lifted immediately.
“It’s basically just playing Russian roulette,” says Dr. Peter Jüni, Scientific Director of Ontario’s COVID-19 advisory table and Professor of Medicine and Health Policy at the University of Toronto.
“If it were not for a complete public health disaster, it would only be by mere dumb happiness.”
What started as a protest against vaccination mandates for truck drivers crossing the border between Canada and the US has turned into a bigger call for an end to health restrictions designed and set up across the country to slow down the spread of COVID-19 , which has killed more so far. as 33,000 Canadians. Protesters protesting with the trucks that have blocked downtown Ottawa in recent days said they plan to stay until governments drop measures ranging from vaccination mandates to mask requirements in restaurants and shops.
The protest is taking place just as signs are emerging that the Omicron wave is on the rise, and as Ontario has allowed restaurants to resume indoor dining at half capacity this week. Top doctors across the country have suggested that COVID-19 is likely to become endemic, and that it is time to start trying to live with it safely instead of continuing to eradicate it.
That said, Jüni believes it would be ‘stupid’ to lift COVID-19 restrictions immediately.
Emphasizing that the scenario is hypothetical and unlikely to happen, Jüni said lifting the restrictions would now create a spectrum of possibilities for the coming weeks of the pandemic. It ranges from the ideal scenario of a small or insignificant increase in infections, to a “worst case” scenario in which up to one third of Ontario’s hospital beds are filled with COVID-19 patients. Jüni said this would lead to the need for field tents to house the sick, forcing surgeries and other health care services to be canceled as resources are redeployed to fight the pandemic.
He also said the best case scenario of a minimal bump in new COVID-19 cases is ‘unlikely’, given how Canada’s pandemic, as in some countries, has led to such large numbers of multiple wave infections that even the unvaccinated. a degree of immunity would be ensured.
Dr. Michael Gardam, former chief of staff at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital and now chief executive of Prince Edward Island’s health authority, agreed that it was safe to say infections would increase if all health measures were lifted.
But the extent to which they will rise depends on how many people received COVID-19 during the Omicron boom, a statistic that experts can only guess at, given the limits of public testing capabilities, he said.
Gardam said the biggest risk of lifting all restrictions now is that provincial health systems are “fragile” – a situation that other countries that lift restrictions, such as Denmark, do not share. A quarter of Ontario’s hospitals were already out of 100 percent capacity before the pandemic, according to the province’s fiscal liability watchdog. And in December 2019, the Ontario Hospital Association reported the province was linked to Mexico for the lowest number of hospital beds per capita of all countries covered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
That’s why, although Gardam agrees that some COVID-19 restrictions should be lifted – such as federal testing requirements for incoming travelers – he says it would be a mistake to lift them all at this stage.
“There’s a lesson in all of this, which is the big myth in Canada that our health care system is unmatched,” he said. “It is not true.”
Other experts argue that the contagion of Omicron means that the virus can spread widely, no matter what health restrictions are in place – meaning that it is time to turn it around and move from a government-led response to a pandemic of individual responsibility moved.
“It’s not necessarily going to increase, and it’s not necessarily going to mean that more hospitals will be overwhelmed,” says Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, a doctor for infectious diseases with Trillium Health in Mississauga.
Of course, as Chakrabarti pointed out, there are also consequences of health restrictions that need to be considered. Over the past two years, businesses have struggled under orders to close, while the patience and mental health of millions of people have been tested by the ordeal of this historic crisis.
Chakrabarti also argued restrictions do not help people who cannot work from home to become infected, such as people who work in manufacturing and live in large households.
He said it was time to remove the burden of rescuing the healthcare system from individuals and force the government to improve it, as the risks of the pandemic appear to be diminishing.
For Jüni, it is not yet worth the risk of causing a dangerous increase in infections, with spring around the corner and cases declining.
“There is a significant risk that it will break the camel’s back with regard to our healthcare capacity,” he said.
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