omicron

Ontarians are being offered booster shots as the newest coronavirus variant, Omicron, makes its way around the world.

BY IAN PATTISON

Updated December 6

Omicron. It sounds like the title of the latest sci-fi flick. In fact, it’s the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet which, in English, would be the vowel “o” in common use this week as ‘o(h) no, not another variant of the coronavirus!”

First we had Alpha, then came others until we encountered Delta, the first “variant of concern,” and now it’s concerning sibling, Omicron.

Should you be worried about Omicron?

Of course.

It’s likely more contagious than Delta which was more contagious than Alpha. And it’s popping up all over the world. But – and there are a number of buts associated with Omicron, some good, some not so good – Delta did not cause many more hospitalizations and deaths than Alpha. There is a very good chance the same will be true of Omicron.

But, only if you’re vaccinated.

Experience to date in South Africa, where Omicron was first reported, is that most cases have been mild to moderate with severe cases concentrated among people who are not fully vaccinated.

How many more ways can people smarter than most of us say it: Get the shot, wear a mask, keep your distance.

Careless Googlers can find all sorts of contrary quackery. How about instead of a differing doctor or two, speak to your own physician whom you’ve trusted with your health care until Covid came along.

One important thing to keep in mind about this virus in all its forms is that it’s smart. It ‘knows’ that becoming more contagious allows it to flourish. But becoming more severe has the opposite effect, killing more of its hosts before they can infect others. That’s a good thing.

It’s been easy to make the most of the worst news we’ve heard since the last bad news about Covid. And while it’s still early days, it’s vital that we keep our concern in perspective. Assuming the worst is not rational. Until science, racing to understand omicron, is more definitive, let’s not let our alarm bells deafen us to the facts. Our mental health needs our common sense right now.

The timeless wisdom of illness has never been more relevant: Take it one day at a time. And take every opportunity to protect yourself. Ontario will offer third, booster shots to everyone over 50 on Dec. 13. As soon as 24 weeks have passed since your second shot, take the booster. All the real evidence shows it adds immeasurably to protection against Covid which is resurging as winter approaches and activities move indoors.

On Thursday and through Monday, for the first time since spring, Ontario had more than 1,000 new cases confirmed every day. Thunder Bay District sits at 137 active cases, 54 of which were reported on Monday.

On Sunday the District Health Unit reported four and as many as eight cases of the Omicron variant in a Thunder Bay area household linked to southern Africa travel.

The trend isn’t surprising. Increasing hospital admissions, crowded ICU wards and, ultimately, new deaths will cause a whole new round of worry and strain.

If and probably when that happens, the attitudinal divide between the majority vaccinated and minority unvaccinated will widen. It will be tempting to ostracize all who aren’t vaccinated, including those who remain genuinely concerned about vaccine side-effects or simply fear needles.

It is essential to reason with your acquaintances who continue to rely on bad information, but there is simply no more use in trying to accommodate anti-vaxxers who refuse to hear reason. Sadly, they will occupy most of the hospital beds set aside for Covid, diverting dwindling resources from other patients.

Figures reported this week by Statistics Canada for the first 18 months of the pandemic, from March 2020 to July 2021, show an estimated 19,501 excess pandemic deaths, including those who did not get Covid, with delayed surgeries and procedures.

Another report this week, for the Canadian Medical Association, said that between August and September last year, the number of these “excess deaths” in Canada unrelated to COVID-19 infections was more than 4,000.

What’s more, we are losing hundreds of nurses to burnout which was already common before Covid due in part to the Ontario government’s Bill 124 which limits nursing wages even as we expect so much more of them. Many are giving up and looking for new opportunities, pushing staff shortages to critical levels in many institutions.

A new report by the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table finds that as Covid cases climb while nursing numbers decline, the province’s critical care system is more strained than in previous pandemic waves and does not have the capacity to cope with surges of critically ill patients.

Hospitals racing to catch up to backlogs in diagnostics and surgeries will again be forced to divert resources back to Covid and the cycle of indirect illness and death will continue. Vaccinations and simple but effective self-protection measures are more important than ever.

Covid came to be called a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Not any more. Reasonable, fully vaccinated people are suffering at the hands of the unvaccinated who are increasingly being isolated from public activities. Further isolation seems inevitable for those who choose to remain hostile to the obvious.

It is easy to lose hope in these trying times but if you look, it’s there. We need to face the likelihood that Covid will be with us indefinitely, possibly forever. But so is the flu and most of us routinely get vaccines for that. Flu killed 3,500 people in Canada last year. Covid killed five times that number so imagine the death toll that was avoided were it not for vaccines and public health measures.

Another positive note: If you do get Covid, a new generation of treatments will soon be available in Canada. Two pills, from Pfizer and Merck, can reduce serious Covid illness and reduce the fear of Covid to help us all get back toward something like normal. We’ll be wearing masks for a good while yet, but breathing a little easier knowing that science continues to mount effective barriers to this pesky virus.

Let’s worry more about the 80,000 Canadians who die of cancer every year. Some of us know someone who died of Covid. All of us know someone who was taken by cancer and most of us have lost many family, friends and acquaintances who didn’t deserve their fate and fought it like hell.

If only there was a vaccine for cancer. There is one for Covid. Please take it. And take heart in the many efforts underway to protect and heal us from a virus that is stubborn but probably not invincible.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.