Ready for action: gym space at Pelham's community centre set up for Covid-19 jabs in April 2021. SUPPLIED

BY DR. MUSTAFA HIRJI
Acting Medical Officer of Health
Niagara Region

This is not the end-of-year message I had planned to write. After 21 months of a difficult pandemic, I had hoped to outline a positive outlook for 2022 as we geared up to celebrate the holidays with friends and family. For some, this would have been the first proper family event in two years.

The Omicron variant has dashed all our plans. As you are no doubt aware, this variant is spreading rapidly in Ontario and Niagara, just as it spread at lightning speed in other countries before us. By the time you read this, we may already be setting record high numbers of Covid-19 cases. If not, it will happen within days.

Dr. Mustafa Hirji. SUPPLIED

As cases rise exponentially, it may begin to feel that we are hopeless to stop this pandemic. We are not. The virus needs us to survive, and that gives us some control over it. We do not need (or want) the virus, so it has no similar control over us. The virus’s biggest advantage is that we are tired of this pandemic after 21 months, yet it doesn’t get tired at all. However, if we can power through our fatigue, we have 21 months of learning that shows us how we can defeat the pandemic.

First, thanks to science, we have vaccines and new medications. While the Omicron variant can evade the protection of the vaccine somewhat, two doses of vaccine still reduces our risk of infection, and very strongly reduces our risk of severe illness. Thanks to 76 percent of Niagara residents becoming fully vaccinated, the virus is going to have more trouble spreading. A booster dose further improves our immunity against this variant. While we can’t give boosters to everyone in a few days, we can protect our children and those who are older and most vulnerable to severe illness quickly. Let’s make sure we let the older members of our community get their boosters right away before those of us who are younger get ours in a few weeks. Let’s make sure our children get their vaccine. And if we haven’t yet got our first or second dose, now is the time to get that too.

Second, masks are a nuisance, but they really work. Let’s keep wearing them. Most important is to have a mask that fits well, making a good seal around the face without gaps. The mask should also have at least three layers. A medical mask that is moulded around the nose fits the bill, but so do some cloth masks. If you want the ultimate protection, a KN95 or N95 respirator will do the best job filtering virus that might be in the air.

Third, we need to avoid crowds and gatherings. The holiday season is the worst possible time for such a surge because the gatherings and travel we enjoy at this time of year will super-charge this variant’s spread. The federal government has advised against international travel, and I strongly agree with that—even travel to the US will increase our own and our community’s risk. The provincial government has issued new gathering limits as well: a maximum of 10 persons indoor or 25 persons outdoors. As difficult as it is so close to the holidays, I ask everyone to respect these gathering limits and keep holiday gatherings as small as possible, within the 10 person cap, and ideally with only one household visiting over the holidays. Being around fewer people will starve the virus of opportunities to spread.

The holiday season is the worst possible time for such a surge because the gatherings and travel we enjoy at this time of year will super-charge this variant’s spread

Fourth, since the virus can travel through the air, avoiding poorly ventilated spaces is key. Small rooms that get stuffy are spaces where virus can build up in the air. Larger spaces where the air can dilute and ventilated spaces where air inside is frequently removed are safer. The ultimate is being outdoors where there is infinite space and natural ventilation. Winter activities can be a refuge from Omicron.

Finally, we can redouble our efforts at keeping two metres distance from others. The farther we are from a person, the less we will breathe the air they exhale. It is easy to get engrossed in a conversation and end up closer to someone than intended. Unlike with bad breath, we can’t tell that we are getting too close. But like with bad breath, that distance will protect us.

None of the above is going to make us 100 percent safe; each is imperfect. But if all of us do all five of them consistently, we can get pretty close to perfection.

In past waves, the government has used lockdowns to stop the spread. Lockdowns are a blunt tool to force us to avoid being around others (places to go are closed)—that’s forcing us to avoid crowds, preventing us from being with non-family in poorly-ventilated rooms, stopping us from travelling, and effectively keeping us physically distant (if you’re not in the same space, you are far more than two metres apart!). With a variant as efficient as Omicron, a blunt tool like a lockdown may not work so well. A much finer, more nuanced approach is for all of us to practice the behaviours outlined above.

There’s a trope in horror movies where near the end, with everyone exhausted and injured, the monster appears defeated, only to suddenly surge to life back for one last scare. In the horror show that is this pandemic, Omicron is the final, sudden scare. I truly believe that once we defeat the Omicron variant, we will have defeated the pandemic and be able to transition back to normal life.

While we are all exhausted from Covid-19, we also have 21 months of experience beating it back, and more knowledge and technology (e.g. vaccines, medications) to aid us in that fight. Our resolve as a community is the only remaining ingredient we need. If we dig deep, stick together, and personally practice the five measures above, we’ll put this pandemic in its grave this winter in time for a spring full of opportunity.