Omicron Grinch almost stole Christmas

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In the end, we each need to do our part to end the pandemic. But we also need embrace life. Life is the whole point of this fight.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on December 30, 2021.

OTTAWA—The Omicron Grinch almost stole Christmas.

But the common sense of Canadians intervened.

Notwithstanding multiple warnings that we should stick to small gatherings, Canadians have taken this year’s pandemic warnings less literally than in the past.

The country has gone from COVID fatigue to burnout, with the majority of us absorbing conflicting transmission information with a grain of winter salt.

Canadians are not oblivious to the slowdown in hospitalization numbers. The province of Nova Scotia, the first to endorse widespread use of rapid antigen tests for detection, has changed its own protocol to take the emphasis off spread and put it where it belongs, in hospitalization levels.

As Omicron appears to be less deadly than its predecessors, it is illogical to lecture Canadians to take it just as seriously. For most, infections are similar to a bad cold or flu, expected during Canadian winters.

Canadians have followed all the advisories and the medical advice from our public health officials. We have been double and triple vaccinated, generally practise social distancing, and masking, and for those efforts, we expect some return on our collective investment.

Simply being told to stay home and repeat the sacrifices of last Christmas is not credible. Ditto for the anti-travel advice.

Many snowbirds who stayed home last year, following government warnings, are flocking to warmer destinations.

People are willing to be cautious, but bowing to the politics of fear seems to have lost its lustre.

The changing virus messages are adding to the ongoing confusion.

After two years of approving cloth masks, Canada’s chief public health officer is now saying that those masks should be ditched in favour of medical grade N-95 masks. Only a few weeks ago, we were told that medical-level masks should be reserved for health-care professionals who are dealing directly with infected patients.

For two years, Canadian health professionals refused to recommend antigen tests as a way of triaging asymptomatic carriers of the virus. But that advice has also been reversed, with the same people who said antigen tests did not work now recommending their usage.

And while Canada was previously insistent that the PCR test is the only legitimate way to test for viral infection, the United States and the European Union have been utilizing rapid tests as a travel requirement since the beginning.

But after almost two years of usage, the Centres for Disease Control in the U.S. is now casting doubt on the accuracy of home-based antigen tests.

So just as many Canadian provinces are starting to distribute home-based antigen tests for personal use, the international community is reversing its position on the efficacy of the selfsame test.

Updated American guidance also involves reducing isolation from 14 to five days for those infected by the Omicron virus. At the same time, the CDC does not use rapid testing as a tool to verify whether the infection has passed because the health organization is now saying that negative tests are not always accurate.

The confusion around rapid test accuracy and the refusal to vaccinate has led to massive infection and death rates in the States. As of the year end, more than 800,000 people have died of the virus. The Canadian death numbers are slightly more than 30,000, illustrating a significantly lower death rate based on better masking and vaccinations.

Canada has not been plagued with the vaccine hostility that has frustrated our southern neighbours.

While we still have some Canadians who simply refuse vaccinations, as of early December, 80 per cent of Canadians had received at least one vaccine, with 76 per cent fully vaccinated.

That compares with slightly more than 60 per cent of Americans, with vaccinations largely lining up on political lines. Democrats support masking and vaccinating while the majority of Republicans refuse to do so.

In the end, we each need to do our part to end the pandemic. But we also need embrace life. Life is the whole point of this fight.

Health officials do their best to convince people to stay home and congregate in small groups. Political leaders reinforce the message that now is not the time to move around.

But the deadly fear that followed the discovery of the first and second virus variant seems to be petering out in the same way that Omicron variant is spreading.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.