A massive wave of COVID-19 cases has put Newfoundland and Labrador back into Alert Level 4 for the first time since the spring of 2020, but Memorial University’s Dr. Proton Rahman is the second local expert this week to suggest that respite from the never-ending pandemic may soon be in sight.
Rahman, who heads up the province’s COVID-19 modelling team, says Newfoundland and Labrador may already have reached a crest in cases, even though the province stopped testing people who have been identified as close contacts and are experiencing symptoms.
“The rate of growth has stabilized,” he told The Telegram Friday, Jan. 7. “At one point in time, we were experiencing exponential growth with a doubling time as short as two-and-a-half days.”
For the past week, the province has been averaging about 500 new cases a day. The count Friday was 480.
“So it’s always tricky in terms of calling these things, because it’s assuming our behaviour doesn’t change,” Rahman said.
With more than 4,000 active cases, it would be too soon to relax health measures, he said, because new infections could easily start rising again.
The best indicator of where the province is in the wave is the positivity rate — the ratio of positive cases per tests conducted.
“We get a sense if there’s a lot more infection if the percentage positivity were to go up,” he said. “The only thing with that is sometimes you get a biased sample because people that you want to test are more at risk.”
The solution? Look at the positivity rate of people getting routine tests because they’re going into hospital.
“That sort of testing is more random and it’s a better reflection of infection rates within the community because they weren’t tested necessarily because of an exposure,” he said.
He said his team also wants to get back to wastewater testing now that the holidays are over. That practice can indicate trends of infection in specific communities by testing for antigens in the sewage system.
Rahman says he’s basically thrown out the concept of herd immunity — where the coronavirus would all but disappear because so few people are susceptible to infection.
The reason is obvious — neither infection nor vaccination guarantees against reinfection.
“I think we’re going to go from a pandemic to an endemic, where some variant of the COVID-19 (virus) will co-exist with us. And the reason for saying that is if you look at the Omicron (variant) compared to the Delta, you’re almost 10 times more likely to get reinfected.”
He said the Omicron variant also has a short generation time.
“It’s going to be hard to control it as we start opening up a bit more.”
For now, the idea is to stall for time while young children continue to get vaccinated and more adults get boosters.
“That’s going to allow us to more smoothly transition into it than just crashing into it,” he said.
The term endemic, he explained, describes a state in which a virus is still around, but its impact on health and health services is more stable.
Influenza is a prime example.
That prospect is possible with Omicron, he said, both because more advanced data from other countries suggest it causes less severe illness, and because vaccines reduce its impact even further.
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram