The idea of eliminating COVID-19 altogether was never a realistic expectation. It’s now out of the question, at least for the foreseeable future.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus will likely be with us for many years, and will probably circulate seasonally like other coronaviruses. It will be controlled through immunization and to some degree, natural immunity. The question now is: how much of it are we prepared to tolerate (as we do with other respiratory diseases)?
Even countries such as New Zealand, which managed for some time to keep COVID-19 at bay through lockdowns and strict travel restrictions, have abandoned so-called COVID-zero strategies. It is no longer a realistic goal, largely because of the more contagious delta variant.
Canada never pursued a COVID-zero policy; the goals were always to mitigate severe illness and protect hospital capacity.
Provinces achieved those objectives, with varying levels of success, through public health restrictions. Some failed spectacularly, at times, including Manitoba (and now Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, all three of whom eliminated restrictions prematurely over the summer).
The goal of mitigating severe illness and protecting hospital capacity will remain. That’s an ongoing public health objective, whether amid a pandemic or not. The major difference now is there are vaccines to help achieve those goals.
If immunization uptake is high enough, life can return to normal; without masks, proof-of-vaccine rules or capacity limits in public places. But COVID-19 will not be eliminated. People will still get infected, as they do with other communicable diseases, and some will die. That’s unavoidable.
The debate going forward will be how much COVID-19 we can live with, how it will be controlled, and what steps can be taken to better protect the most vulnerable.
Are a dozen cases a day in Manitoba tolerable during respiratory disease season? How many hospital admissions can the system handle during peak periods? At what point do public health officials stop testing for COVID-19 and switch to surveillance methods used for other infectious diseases?
Eventually, the provincial government will have to answer those questions.
That likely won’t happen until April or May, at the earliest. Manitoba chief provincial public health officer Brent Roussin has already said current proof-of-vaccines won’t be lifted before the end of winter.
Manitoba has to get through the 2021 respiratory illness season before it makes any major changes to public health orders. There are still too many unknown variables, such as waning vaccine protection, to make changes beforehand.
Children under 12 have yet to be vaccinated against COVID-19, which could begin in late November. Also, dangerously low uptake in some parts of the Southern Health region continue to pose a significant risk to the entire province.
If by spring, cases are manageable, hospital capacity is stable and vaccine uptake (with booster third doses for most) hits 85-90 per cent, would restrictions be removed? If not then, when?
There is a long way to go to get there. Manitoba’s case counts have plateaued at around 100 a day (with some fluctuations) — promising numbers, considering how much physical interaction has resumed in society. But at those levels, and with close to 100 COVID-19 patients in hospital (including 22 patients in ICU, a number that has been inching up in recent weeks, mostly among the unvaccinated), Manitoba is not in a position to lift any restrictions.
We have to get used to the idea COVID-19 will be part of our lives for years to come. We may need annual COVID-19 vaccines (like flu shots) to manage it, while growing natural immunity among those who have recovered from an infection will contribute to overall protection.
The conversation around how and when we move into post-pandemic life has to start sooner rather than later.
It should be science-based and informed by evidence from other parts of the world but, at some point, the public needs to know how the pandemic ends.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.