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Jarvis: Omicron shows ‘just how perilous and precarious our situation is’

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It doesn’t get any clearer than this.

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“The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,” World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday.

A few months ago, we watched the number of COVID-19 infections fall. And, presumptuously, we planned the end of a global pandemic.

No more proof of vaccination in January, Ontario said. No more masks in March. No more sense of urgency.

Even though vaccination had long slowed and remained short of the goal and cases were expected to rise as restrictions were lifted and winter set in.

And, of course, we paid little heed to the lack of vaccine in poorer countries.

Now comes our comeuppance. Cases are rising, and we’re learning yet another letter of the Greek alphabet, Omicron.

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The new coronavirus variant of concern is another blunt reminder that this isn’t over, that almost two years into this, we’re not even in control yet, that vaccination and public health measures remain critical and it’s not only about what happens here but what happens in the rest of the world.

We don’t know how transmissible Omicron is. But we know that it has more mutations than the other known variants, more than 30 on its spike protein, which it uses to enter human cells. It appears more transmissible than the Delta variant driving the current wave of COVID-19. And people who have already had COVID-19 appear to be at an increased risk of being infected again. Can it evade the vaccines? We don’t know yet.

We also don’t know how virulent Omicron is. Initial reports describe mild cases. But these cases were among university students, and young adults tend to experience more mild COVID-19 symptoms. Hospitalizations in South Africa, where it was first identified last week, are rising, but that could be because more people are being infected.

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We do know enough for the WHO to warn that Omicron poses a “very high” risk to the world and that “there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences.”

But it will be several weeks before scientists can answer key questions. What do we do now?

We deal with the threat we’re already facing: rising cases and hospital admissions from the current wave.

Another 85 cases were reported in Windsor and Essex County on Tuesday. There were 28 outbreaks. Twenty-one people are in hospitals.

We make up about two per cent of Ontario’s population, and we have about 10 percent of the cases in this province. We’re a hot spot, again.

Windsor Regional Hospital is admitting two to three COVID-19 patients a day. Nine of the 18 COVID-19 patients in that hospital Tuesday were in the intensive care unit at the Met campus.

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Erie Shores HealthCare in Leamington admitted 10 COVID-19 patients in the last 24 to 36 hours. The positivity rate at the hospital’s testing centre is 25 per cent.

And “surge season,” when admissions surge because of seasonal illnesses like influenza, is just beginning.

“The convergence of all of that together is quite alarming right now,” said CEO Kristin Kennedy.

“It’s not good now,” agreed Musyj. “Delta is bad enough. We should be worried about Delta.”

A mobile vaccination team from Erie Shores did a pop-up clinic Tuesday, but they weren’t targeting only kids, who have been able to get the vaccine since last Thursday. They’re still targeting adults who aren’t vaccinated almost a year after vaccines were approved.

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Only 83.6 per cent of people ages 12 and older in this region are vaccinated. That’s lower than the Ontario rate of 86.4 per cent. And Ontario hasn’t met the goal of 90 per cent.

Only about 20 to 30 per cent of people eligible for a booster shot here have gotten it.

And most of those positive tests and admissions at Erie Shores, of course, are unvaccinated people because this has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, we just lifted another precautionary measure. You can go to Michigan, where cases are surging and even fewer people are vaccinated, for up to 72 hours and return without being tested. Yeah, the previous rule allowing people to be tested in Canada before leaving for the U.S. was inane and the cost of a test was prohibitive. But now we’ve swung to the other extreme — providing only random testing.

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We know what works,  Musyj said — vaccination, public health measures and testing.

But, as Ghebreyesus of the WHO said, “we are living through a cycle of panic and neglect. Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant.”

If Omicron turns out to be less dangerous than feared, that will be a stroke of luck. Because as long as this virus is circulating — anywhere in the world — it’s also replicating and mutating. And that means it’s only a matter of time before the next variant of concern emerges. And we’re learning another letter of the Greek alphabet.

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