Is now the appropriate time to ease COVID-19 measures?

The government’s decision to ease sanitary measures may be a relief for certain businesses, however some experts believe that it can only be effectively done if properly safeguarded

Quebec’s Interim Public Health Director Dr. Luc Boileau announced in a press conference last week the easing of certain COVID-19 measures. As of March 12, Quebecers will no longer need to present their vaccination passport in public venues such as restaurants and bars, and businesses will be able to operate at 100 per cent capacity. By mid-April, the province intends to lift mask mandates, excluding on public transport, where mandates will remain in place until May.  

Though Boileau and the Quebec government regard mask measures as an effective one, they cannot continue to oblige it. As the government continues to return to normalcy, Boileau said in his March 3 press conference that masks will become a personal choice. In last week’s press conference, Boileau lifted more health measures. For example, if asymptomatic, people will no longer need to self-isolate for five days if in contact with someone that has tested positive for COVID-19.

Though the government is adamant about continuing to lift sanitary COVID-19 measures, many are still questioning whether now is the best time to ease all restrictions. The virus’ prevalence has prompted experts to envision potential risks that could emerge from these actions later down the line.

Most businesses optimistic in return

For many businesses heavily impacted by COVID-19 regulations, this is a breath of relief. The hardest hit businesses, like restaurants and bars, are grateful that they can now return to serving customers free of added restrictions and measures imposed upon their business.

Martin Vézina, vice president of governmental and public affairs for Association Restauration Quebec (ARQ) claimed that many restaurants feel reassured with the easing of sanitary measures. “This is good news for us because it comes down to a certain sense of normalcy that we haven’t seen since March 2020. We’re looking forward to opening at full capacity.”

 Restaurants that opened amid the pandemic like Bistro La Franquette are cautiously optimistic about easing measures. Co-owner Renée Deschenes has experienced many changes in health measures over the course of her restaurant’s existence, and feels like the added confusion from constant modifications has planted seeds of uncertainty and confusion among patrons entering her establishment.

 “It’s nice and all that we are able to open up at 100 per cent capacity, but the after-effects of people being in lockdown, people having a curfew, and the general public not really knowing what the rules are and aren’t, those effects are definitely felt in the restaurant,” said Deschenes.

 Experts are not fully convinced that now is the time to lift measures

Assistant professor at the McGill University Department of Medicine and infectious disease specialist Dr. Matthew Oughton is more cautious, and believes that though COVID-19 cases are low for now, the future of living with the virus can’t be accurately predicted. According to Oughton, continuing vaccine education, heavier viral monitoring, improving indoor air quality, and individual optimal vaccine protection are the four items that should be of primary concern while measures are eased. 

Given how the virus has surprised many over the past two years, especially amid the emergence of variants with increased transmissibility like Omicron and BA.2, lifting sanitary measures may eventually lead to re-imposed measures on public spaces and venues. “All of a sudden within about a month or so it (Omicron) exploded in so many different parts of the world. So, could we see that same process again, given all of the surprises that COVID-19 has dealt us over the past two years, we should expect to be surprised.”

 Despite the difficulty of accurately predicting if or when the next wave will hit, Oughton believes that if it does, it will be difficult for both the government and public health authorities to convince the public to respect re-implemented COVID-19 measures. “After two years, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people are very tired of dealing with this. […] Unfortunately, just because we are tired of the virus, that doesn’t mean the inverse, that the virus is tired of us.”

 Despite the decline in cases, Oughton stated that most of Quebec’s population is not optimally protected from COVID-19. “If you look at the numbers, we’re about 91 per cent of people with at least one dose, we are at something like 87 per cent of the population with two doses, but we’re just only barely above 50 per cent of the population having three doses.”

 Peter Darlington, associate professor in the Department of Health, Kinesiology, and Applied Physiology at Concordia University explained that a virus’s lifespan ultimately depends upon the number of people it can infect. “How contagious it is would have an impact, because the virus essentially wants to be in as many people as possible. If you look at Ebola for example, the Ebola virus is not as transmissible because it has to travel through fluid, it’s not like an aerosol.” Darlington added that, the more variants like BA.2 are transmitted, there’s a greater possibility of other mutations occurring.  

 “Transmissibility is what derives its effects across a large population,” Oughton said. “Contagious diseases require close contact often for transmission so the more opportunities there are, the more you’re going to see some of these infections start to come back.”

 The data on the presence of the BA.2 variant in areas like Montreal is still limited, but the lack of sufficient testing has prompted the Quebec government to re-monitor the virus through wastewater testing, a measure that experts like Oughton have been waiting for. 

“I think it’s a brilliant measure and I’ve been arguing for this for a long time. By re-instituting our wastewater screening, we will have an early indicator that on a population level gives you a reasonable measure of the amount of disease activity.”

 Safeguards like providing third doses to the near 50 per cent of Quebecers who have not yet received it, educating the public regarding the continued presence of the virus, and ensuring proper air quality in higher transmission zones are all effective measures to lessen the chances of transmission and re-imposed sanitary restrictions.

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