P.E.I. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison appeared before the legislative standing committee on health Wednesday to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic.
Answering questions from MLAs from all three parties, she said international health authorities have not yet declared the pandemic over yet, but there are signs the end will come soon.
Morrison added that it's hard to know what the end will look like, other than that it will probably not mean the end of new COVID-19 cases.
Epidemiologist Dr. Marguerite Cameron told the MLAs that as of July, an estimated 48-49% of Islanders aged 17 and up had antibodies from COVID-19 infection, based on research by Canadian Blood Services. Since then, thousands more cases have been confirmed, though Morrison added that she knows testing is not capturing every case on the Island.
"Islanders, collectively, have made a difference and saved lives," Morrison said as she thanked Islanders for their hard work over the last two and a half years.
"It's really been about balance, and by and large Prince Edward has done a very good job in, really, what has been a historic period of time for the whole world, managing this pandemic," she said.
Over the course of the pandemic P.E.I. has the lowest death rate among the provinces, Morrison said, at 34 per 100,000. The national average is 116.
However, P.E.I. didn't register a single COVID death until January 2022.
Looking only at deaths from this year, P.E.I.'s COVID-19 death rate is almost the same as that in the rest of the country — 34 per 100,000 population versus 38 for Canada as a whole. In 2022, Ontario's COVID death rate has been 28 per 100,000 of population, by comparison.
Green Party MLA Hannah Bell noted that the provincial started with a "zero COVID" approach.
While it was disruptive to people's work lives and daily routines, she told the hearing, "We didn't have the hospitalizations and the death and so on, and that changed significantly for us quite rapidly.
"And so it's very important that we recognize that we've lost 60 Islanders, and that those are families who have been impacted by that loss."
Disadvantaged suffered more
Morrison also talked about what the province needs to do to prepare for the next pandemic.
She said the lesson from COVID-19 is that while all people faced risk from the disease, those risks were not equal, and neither was the impact of measure taken to control the pandemic.
"Populations who are already disadvantaged by existing structural inequities have less resiliency during health emergencies," Morrison said. "Not only are people in vulnerable situations at higher risk for negative outcomes as a result of COVID-19 itself, but the public health measures implemented to protect the overall population health can add to already difficult situations."
Those people include seniors, those living in poverty, people with disabilities and chronic diseases, racialized people, and women.
Pandemic control measures increased isolation and made it more difficult to access services, Morrison said.
"Vulnerable populations, including somebody who is immunocompromised or who is disabled or who has underlying conditions, chronic conditions, do not have a choice about how they can participate in society...," she said.
"How do we rationalize moving on with the impact it has on our vulnerable populations who cannot participate if the community isn't protecting them? And I'm thinking particularly [of] kids who can't go to school. So they can't access their human right of an education because they're not safe to do so in a [state] that isn't protecting their health."
Getting Islanders to lead healthier lives
Overall improvements in the health of the population will make the province more resilient in the face of another pandemic, Morrison told the MLAs.
There's never been a more important time for health promotion, as we're trying to come out of a pandemic. — Dr. Heather Morrison
She noted that health inequities can come from insecurity of housing or food, as well as inadequate wages. There should also be a focus on promoting physical activity, healthier diets, and reducing alcohol and cannabis use, Morrison said.
"Reducing health inequities and improving the overall general health of the population by preventing chronic diseases will help minimize serious outcomes and deaths in the next pandemic," she said.
"There's never been a more important time for health promotion, as we're trying to come out of a pandemic."