Armed with two vaccines, eased restrictions, and a holiday break where we saw family and friends for the first time in a long time, many of us thought the pandemic was nearly over. But with reported cases breaking records with 47,700 cases on January 4, 2021, along with hospitalizations and deaths on the rise, Ontario and the rest of Canada is poised to experience the largest wave of Covid-19 thanks to the Omicron variant.
Though the last few months felt like a return to pre-pandemic life, we are not out of the woods—yet. The apparent mildness of Omicron’s symptoms originally led many to believe the variant was less threatening than its predecessors, but its high transmissibility has led to an increase in hospitalizations. A recent study from Hong Kong suggests that the newest variant multiplies up to 70 times quicker than the Delta variant, giving it what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls a “substantial growth advantage.”
Omicron is just the latest variant of SARS-CoV-2, and while “variant” has become part of the everyday vocabulary, many people have been left confused about what exactly it is. If they’re all Covid-19, why are these new versions such a concern?
Viruses are constantly changing and mutating—that’s why we’re advised to get the flu shot every year. Oftentimes, these mutations are harmless and don’t benefit the virus at all, but that isn’t always the case. A variant arises when a strain develops a “distinct grouping of mutations,” which can make the variant even more dangerous than the original virus.
While it may seem like these Covid-19 variants have appeared suddenly and out of nowhere, the reality is that the novel coronavirus has been mutating since the beginning. At first, this wasn’t a concern. Now, however, it’s a problem. Variants are spreading easier and quicker. But why?
According to experts, there are a variety of reasons why we may be seeing concerning Covid-19 variants. As the virus spreads, it is exposed to more genetic diversity which causes it to evolve and develop higher transmissibility or an immunity to vaccines. This can be especially concerning to those who received both doses of the vaccine and thought they would be fully protected. This is where booster shots come in.
As of January 4, nearly 78 per cent of the eligible population in Ontario was double vaccinated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccines trigger an immune response in our bodies. This response creates the antibodies needed to fight off specific infections in case we encounter them. Over time, these responses fade away; our bodies forget, and they become more susceptible to the virus and its variants once again.
A booster shot functions as a reminder. By getting a booster shot, the “quantity and quality” of the antibodies we produce can increase, and these can become more adept at fighting off variants. Many countries have begun administering booster shots to fully vaccinated individuals, including Turkey, who began offering fifth booster doses to eligible groups. As of January 9, roughly 31 per cent of Ontarians have received their third booster dose.
The pandemic is far from over. In a statement released on December 30, the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Dr. Theresa Tan, reminded Canadians to continue following public health guidelines, which include wearing a properly fitting mask and reducing contact with one another as much as possible. As we enter yet another year of the Covid-19 pandemic, this can be incredibly disheartening. So, when do we know a pandemic is over?
A pandemic is defined as an “outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographical area.” According to WHO, we will remain in a pandemic until the virus ceases to spread across all countries. In other words, the rates of transmission need to drop worldwide. Yet public health experts have stated that Covid-19 will likely be around for a long time—past the end of the pandemic.
With the help of vaccines and public health protocols, it might eventually reach what is known as an endemic state, where the virus only spreads in a specific region. While it won’t disappear completely, it will reach a much more manageable state, on the same level as the flu or common cold. The rate of infections will stabilize, and cases, hospitalizations, and deaths will taper down in much of the world.
Another way to end a pandemic is through herd immunity. According to WHO, herd immunity is achieved when enough people in a community build up immunity to a disease, either through vaccinations or a previous infection. When this happens, even those within the community who cannot get vaccinated are protected, since the disease will have a difficult time spreading.
Booster shots can be critical in encouraging this immunity. The Public Health Agency of Canada continues to recommend a booster shot for individuals who have completed a full vaccine series. While fully vaccinated individuals may still contract and pass along the virus, symptoms will be far less severe than in those who are unvaccinated, resulting in fewer hospitalizations.
In an email to The Medium, Peel Public Health encourages UTM students to continue doing their part: “[We] would encourage all UTM students to get vaccinated, including getting a booster, as soon as possible. With the current surge in cases, strictly following public health measures, wearing masks, staying home, and isolating when ill, are all important steps for students to take to protect themselves and those around them.”