What gives? Is it bad? How bad is it? And what should we do?
Remember a few weeks ago when nobody even knew how to pronounce Omicron? Now we're all watching the news again and trying to avoid doomscrolling on Twitter as this latest variant of concern prompts flashbacks to the early days of the pandemic.
What gives? Is it bad? How bad is it? Good questions. We asked some experts about their views on Omicron in Quebec.
First of all, Omicron is likely far more present in the province than so far documented. "Quebec's reported numbers are absolutely undercounted," said Prativa Baral, an epidemiologist and doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in an email to MTL Blog.
Ontario's Omicron numbers are far higher, with the expectation that it will shortly become the dominant strain, Baral observed, and "there is no reason to suggest that this will not happen in Quebec."
Dr. Janusz Kaczorowski, a professor and research director at Université de Montréal, agreed. "It is quite likely that Omicron will become a dominant variant in Quebec within the next few days," he said in an email to MTL Blog. He cited Omicron's suggested R-value of 3.5 to 4 — meaning each person infected with that strain will infect 3.5 to 4 more people, on average. (The Delta strain's R-value is closer to 1, Kaczorowski noted.)
Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said on Tuesday that officials would screen new cases for the variant to get a clearer picture, and those results should emerge soon. Regardless, Baral said, we are facing "a massive Omicron surge of cases."
If you want to go hide under a pile of coats until this is over, we get it. There are, however, many reasons for hope.
"The good news is that [Omicron] appears to be much milder and our vaccination coverage is pretty good," Kaczorowski said. "This means that we are not likely to see large increases in hospitalizations."
Baral's take is perhaps slightly less rosy, but not totally grim. "Because we have a high level of two dose protection in our community, best case scenario is that it doesn't lead to severe illness as frequently — which would very much help our health systems out," she said.
To ensure that outcome, Baral said, the public and the government need to implement the lessons learned so far: "rapid tests before gatherings, better quality masks, a push for mitigation strategies to clean our air (ventilate, purify!) — so that when Omicron hits, we're prepared to take it on, irrespective of how severe or mild it ends up being."
The worst case, Baral continued, is one where hospitalizations rise too fast and Quebec's fragile health care system begins to buckle, forcing the government to impose lockdowns on a population that, by now, is seriously over them.
"We don't want to be put in a position of having to triage and select who to treat in hospitals," Baral said. "We don’t want to be put in a position of having to stop in person schooling. No one wants to go back to March 2020 — and we now have the tools now to prevent that from happening — so I'm hopeful that it doesn't come to that."
As far as holiday gatherings go, Quebec government officials have made it clear that they'll change the rules if the situation requires it.
Kaczorowski said he doubted stricter gathering rules would effectively slow Omicron's spread. He suggested that free rapid tests, expected to be available in the coming days, should be used strategically.
"Everyone, symptomatic or not, planning to gather with [a] large number of friends or family during the holidays should take it (and self-isolate if the test is positive)," he said.
Limiting contacts makes sense, Baral said, but she said that with Omicron, "risk cannot ever be zero." Still, she advised avoiding potential exposure in the days leading up to holiday gatherings with family.
"So I would personally reduce my gathering to a smaller number, among the vaccinated, open up that window to increase ventilation, install [a] HEPA filter if you can afford it, and get everyone rapid tested right before the gathering to catch the most contagious cases," she said.
This article's cover image was used for illustrative purposes only.
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