By now, you probably have an opinion about the Omicron variant and how we in Ontario and Canadians generally have responded to it to it. Assertions that this variant is “milder” have become deeply polarizing.
On one side, those skeptical public health restrictions are growing frustrated that a “mild” form of COVID is triggering further lockdowns. On the other side, healthcare workers are growing frustrated that a virus which threatened to overrun hospitals is being characterized as “mild.”
The truth is that few people fall squarely into one of these categories. Most remain sympathetic to the difficulties faced by our healthcare workers even as their patience with restrictions wanes. Many are still trying to do their part, reluctantly or not.
Omicron is, in fact, much less virulent—meaning less likely to cause severe infection—than previous strains of COVID. Thanks to high vaccination rates, mutations to the virus itself, and the fact that COVID has been circulating for two years, our population was better protected when Omicron hit.
In Ontario, hospitalizations and deaths did not rise in proportion to case counts, which is a good thing considering that in the GTA in December, the number of infections outpaced our ability to keep track of them.
Omicron was different than previous COVID variants in one key respect: it infected vaccinated people in higher numbers. (Though vaccinated patients, on average, still faced less severe illness than the unvaccinated.) Ontario’s testing infrastructure wasn’t prepared for that. Appointments for PCR tests filled up so fast that many testing sites were forced to restrict eligibility. Rapid tests were in short supply, and actual case counts soared well above recorded case counts.
More concerning were hospitalizations. Even though fewer infections resulted in severe illness, so many people were becoming infected that even the marginal proportion of hospitalizations still threatened hospital capacity. That meant not only less space for COVID patients, but more cancelled surgeries, and fewer resources for those requiring non-COVID-related care. In the U.S., some doctors are still telling people to avoid ladders or risky activities that might land them in the ER.
Fortunately, the Omicron wave peaked and fell much more quickly than previous waves. The pressure it placed on the healthcare system dissipated in just a few weeks, meaning the broader public health restrictions (such as gym and restaurant closures) could be lifted sooner than they would otherwise.
As we’ve written before, COVID will never go away and the pain and suffering it’s caused can’t be understated. But there is a silver lining. During the Omicron wave, by necessity we were forced to treat COVID more like a routine respiratory virus than a novel one, breaking down the stigma associated with infection. More infections also meant those who recovered were immunized yet again against future infection.
While governments across the country and around the world have frequently botched their responses to the virus, necessitating lockdowns that might have been avoided, every new wave brings better, longstanding protections such as better ventilation, better testing capacity, more research on antivirals, and broader vaccination campaigns. As immunity grows, those protections get more and more effective.
There will be more variants—some more severe or more contagious than the ones we have so far encountered—but with each one, we become better equipped to face the next. With some luck, that means a quicker return to the things we’ve missed.
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