On March 11, 2020, the spreading COVID-19 virus was declared a pandemic and now two years later, Canadians are seeing significant public health rules and measures loosening, more so than we’ve seen in the last two years.
“If you're looking at this in the frame that ‘everything's over, it's time to move on and that's why we're opening,’ then yes, of course, it does seem scary,” infectious disease expert Dr. Sumon Chakrabati told Yahoo Canada about Ontario’s loosening of restrictions specifically. “When you actually look at it from what we know about masks, what we know about what's happened in other countries and other jurisdictions,... our response has been very conservative compared to other places.”
A lot of what happened is kind of baked into the way the virus spreads and we don't have a lot of control over that. The only thing that we do have control over is, with vaccination, the person who takes the vaccine is more protected against infection… Now, if somebody wants to personally mask, I think that's fine, there's nothing wrong with that.Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, Infectious Disease Specialist
Back in March 2020, many people were initially somewhat resistant to masking requirements in public settings, even if they ultimately still put them on to enter these indoor settings, which has evolved to several individuals being cautious about getting to a point where they will remove face coverings.
As someone who has been working directly with COVID-19 infections for two years now, Dr. Chakrabarti stressed that everyone is going to have their own level of comfort as we adjust to the changing rules from provincial officials.
There are going to be some people that drop the masks immediately, some that drop them in a couple months, and some that never drop them,” he said. “I do think that once people start reconnecting with their family and friends, you'll [see people saying], ‘oh look, people are not wearing masks, they're doing fine.'Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, Infectious Disease Specialist
“When COVID is not in the front and centre of your attention, constantly causing you anxiety, I think that it might be easier to make some of these decisions that transition back to normal life.”
That concept of COVID-19 being at the forefront of our lives for years, causing stress and concern, has been very much a reality for people around the world. As an infectious disease doctor, Chakrabarti stressed that even if there is a “cultural shift” away from focusing on the virus every day for the general public, that’s not the case for professionals in the field.
“People have to remember there are people whose jobs it is to look after pathogens in the field of infectious diseases,” he said. “We're going to be looking at this stuff and continuing to manage it.”
Communication still a problem
Chakrabarti continues to call out the importance of effective communication and messaging to the public.
“I think that a lot of what we're seeing now is the product of two years of fear-based messaging, messaging of moralization of an infection, and mixed messaging,” he explained. “Some of that was difficult to avoid because…social media kind of took on a life of its own, especially in Ontario.”
“I think that public health, they had a very difficult job, don’t get me wrong, but I think that there were many steps of the way where I think the messaging could have been better. It never would have been perfect, but it could have been better… There is such a massive proportion of people who are just fearful and their risk perception is all off because of the messaging they’ve been getting.”
'Restrictions were really not the best intervention in the first place'
One of the most common questions right now, as COVID-19 restrictions loosen, is why now is the time that we can remove locally-enforced proof of vaccination policies and masking rules. Essentially, what makes March 2022 different from three months ago, six months ago, eight months ago, even a year ago.
According to Chakrabarti, the first step may be to “accept the fact that the restrictions were really not the best intervention in the first place.”
“Especially in Ontario, there's this kind of coupling in people's minds that, OK if cases go up, restriction is a good way to deal with this, and my argument is, what we've seen here and in other jurisdictions, restrictions…are downloading risk, especially onto marginalized individuals who are unable to work from home,” he said.
Chakrabarti added that one of the most significant developments has been vaccination and the level of vaccine protection we’re seeing in Canada. In Ontario in particular, 91 per cent of individuals age 12 and older are fully vaccinated, with an additional two per cent partially vaccinated, leaving seven per cent of this age group unvaccinated in the province.
“What's more important…is that if you look at the highest risk people for hospitalization, that's individuals over the age of 65, they're even better vaccinated,” the infectious disease expert highlighted.
Currently in Ontario, 96 per cent of Ontarians between the ages of 60 and 69 are fully vaccinated, 99.1 per cent of people between the ages of 70 and 79 are fully vaccinated, and 100 per cent of Ontarians 80 and older are fully vaccinated.
Dr. Chakrabarti also stressed that now we have therapeutics for COVID-19.
“Let's say if you are vaccinated and you're older and immune compromised, we have treatments, like monoclonal antibodies, that can help you, another tool in the box that we can use to help keep you out of hospital,” he said.
A lot of what we were doing before was on the basis of trying to prevent transmission because of the risk perception that ‘oh my God if I get COVID I'm really going to get sick and die or get hospitalized'… We [know], for the most part, if you're young and healthy, and especially if you're vaccinated, the risk of severe outcomes is small.Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, Infectious Disease Specialist
Ultimately, the bottom line of what’s changed to allow for the loosened restrictions to come into play is that “we now know a lot more.”
“There's therapeutics and vaccination on the ground. We also know that, compared to what we thought it was in 2020, we know that certainly it's not as high of a risk as it was before, especially for vaccinated or post-exposure, and people who are under the age of 65.”