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.


Breaking down the coronavirus

The spread of a human coronavirus, which started in China, has prompted universal fear in the span of weeks.

While there is still a lot of uncertainty about the virus, it was declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30 by the World Health Organization (WHO). Panic has settled in as the death toll continues to climb, with 300 so far and more than 14,000 confirmed cases in primarily Asian countries, according to the New York Times.

The coronavirus originated in Wuhan, which is one of China’s main transportation hubs. It is home to over 11 million people, making it a difficult place to contain an outbreak. Amid the circumstances, many international airlines such as KLM, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Air Canada suspended their flights to China, prolonging the process for nationals seeking a way home.

Given that this is a respiratory virus, MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis experts advise those who are in the vicinity of the virus to practice flu-prevention methods, such as washing your hands frequently and staying home from school or work if you’re sick.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of the coronavirus include runny nose, headache, cough, fever, and a sore throat. Human coronaviruses can also trigger respiratory illness causing pneumonia for those infected. For this reason, people are being warned to be wary of flu-like symptoms, much like the common cold.

People have demonstrated a great deal of concern given that the virus is highly contagious. According to an early SSRN study, an infected person could transmit the disease from 2.0 to 3.1 people, if the necessary preventative measures aren’t taken seriously.

The virus has been compared to SARS, another form of coronavirus that killed 774 people in China back in 2003. The coronavirus can travel through the air, increasing the risk of contamination when a sick person breathes, coughs, sneezes or talks. Although the statistics of the virus raise concern for people worldwide, there are ways to reduce transmission numbers. This is done by using effective public health measures such as keeping those who are sick isolated while monitoring people who might have been in contact with them.

As of Jan. 31, there are four confirmed cases in Canada as reported by Global News: two in Toronto, one in London, Ontario and one in Vancouver. In Ottawa, fears surrounding the spread of the virus happened to coincide with the Chinese Lunar New Year. This led to the cancellation of several Lunar New Year events, despite the fact that there are no confirmed cases in Ottawa.

With the virus having made its way to Canada, the National Post reports that the Chinese-Canadian community is facing discrimination in light of these events. The article also recalls the role media played in propagating misinformation and hurtful stigma against the Chinese Canadian community. On Feb. 1, at a Lunar New Year celebration in Scarborough, Ontario, Justin Trudeau called for all Canadians to stay united against discrimination.

The outbreak has sparked a shared sense of fear in various countries where the coronavirus is present. This became evident when a cruise ship in Italy containing 6,000 tourists was placed in total lockdown, according to The BBC. The two passengers suspected of being contaminated remained in isolation units until deemed safe.

As for the Concordia community, Concordia International has stated that they currently do not have any students abroad in China. University spokesperson Vannina Maestracci explains the University’s approach to keeping the situation under control for students who are worried about the outbreak.

“The University is taking its guidance from public health agencies at the local, provincial and federal levels, who are closely monitoring the outbreak, and providing public health and infection control guidance,” said Maestracci. “Canadian public health authorities advise that the overall risk to Canadians remains low.”

She confirmed that the University has communicated with “students, staff and faculty on the risk, symptoms and best behaviours for flu-like symptoms such as handwashing.”

Maestracci also made a comment pertaining to discrimination on campus geared at Chinese students, saying “our Code of Rights and Responsibilities, which governs the entire Concordia community has, as its grounding principles, the values of civility, equity, respect, non-discrimination and an appreciation of diversity as manifested within Concordia University and within society.”


Graphic by @sundaeghost

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