When will B.C. turn a COVID corner? Expert weighs in on future of pandemic

As we enter the second month of the third year of this COVID-19 pandemic, B.C. continues to hit grim milestones, with hospitalizations surpassing 1,000 for the first time since the health crisis began.

On Monday, the province reported 1,048 people were in hospital with the virus, 138 of them in intensive care. Over the weekend period, more than 4,000 new infections were recorded — a drastic difference from where we were a year earlier, because of the Omicron variant.

The spiking cases in this province and elsewhere in Canada come as pandemic fatigue also reaches new highs, as has been evident in recent polls and protests against health mandates.

Many have been left wondering when we’ll see restrictions lift for good. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix are set to provide an update Tuesday, though it’s unlikely we’ll learn more about those plans until later this month.

When will things change?

As the pandemic drags on, where are we at on the COVID-19 front? When might we turn a corner?

According to Dr. Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist out of the University of Ottawa, the answer is not so simple.

“We won’t know until we’re there for a very long time, because really the definition of endemic is that it stays around reproduction number of 1 for many months, if not years,” he explained.

“Now it’s possible we’ll get there in Canada locally sometime this year, I think that’s likely, frankly, unless something really strange happens like a new terrifying variant shows up or the vaccines simply stop working, or if there’s no lasting immunity from infection. If those things happen, then we might be riding this rollercoaster for a bit longer.”

Endemicity is a bit farther when we’re talking about the global setting, he notes, adding vaccination distribution efforts around the world are lagging.

Even if we do get to endemic stages in Canada this year, Deonandan says we likely won’t know it right away because of the time it takes for data to be assessed.

What’s an endemic?

So what exactly is an endemic? Is it a good thing?

Deonandan says endemic just means the disease is “present at a sustained level for a long period of time in a contained geographical area.” Essentially, we don’t see waves of the virus like we’ve been experiencing over the course of this pandemic.

With some endemics, like the flu, there are seasonal components. But with others, there’s been extensive vaccine work to get them to levels we need.

“Measles is a good example. Measles we’ve vaccinated so well for it that the few outbreaks that do happen are barely noticeable by most people. Public health takes notice but most people don’t. This endemic disease is always present, it’s always circulating, it doesn’t threaten society or the health-care system. I think it’ll be nice if COVID gets to that point,” Deonandan said.

He cautions endemic doesn’t necessarily mean we’re in the clear.

“It’s just a thing. It’s good in the sense that we kind of know where we are then, but it’s bad in the sense if we’re at a place that is terrifyingly resource intensive, then that’s a long-term sustained endeavor,” Deonandan explained.

“My concern is that people look at it as the desired goal. The desired goal is to get rid of this thing or to have it at such low levels that it’s not noticeable from a public health perspective. We do that by vaccination more than anything else.”

As frustrations with the ongoing pandemic and health mandates becoming ever so apparent, Deonandan says we need to keep on with what we’ve been doing.

“We’re all done with [the pandemic] emotionally, scientists are no different. But what we need to do hasn’t changed. We need to push vaccination around the world,” he told CityNews.

Despite many of the people who are in hospital being fully vaccinated against the virus, Deonandan says it’s a group effort.

“If we get three doses into a great number of people, then the ability of the virus to transmit diminishes substantially, definitely its ability to hospitalize people is taken away to a large degree,” he said.

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While it remains to be seen just how much immunity people who’ve been infected with the virus will carry on, Deonandan says if we’re fortunate, after this wave, more people could be protected.

“Even if all of that is wrong, then repeated infection will render something resembling population immunity. Over time, this will cease to be that much of a big deal,” said Deonandan.

Experts with the World Health Organization have also said an endemic is more about the pattern of a disease, not the severity or impact. Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, has previously said there really is no calculation or algorithm as to when we consider a pandemic an endemic.

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