The impact of the lifting of public health measures on transmission and infections
Computer modelling and data analysis done by CoVaRR-Net experts projects that COVID-19 infections among Canadians are likely to rise following the lifting of pandemic restrictions, due to the combined effects of relaxing protections and the growth advantage of the more transmissible BA.2 Omicron subvariant. If restrictions had not been removed in some provinces in February and across Canada in March, BA.2’s growth advantage would have likely overcome the decline in infections leading to relatively stable levels through to the summer.
“While there are a lot of unknowns, with the combined effects of BA.2’s rise and the relaxation of public health measures, the number of infections in Canada is projected to rise to between 230,000 and 300,000 new infections per day in May, based on a 15% or 30% increase in transmission. That is significantly higher than the level of infections (under 150,000 a day) there would have been if restrictions had not been removed. The number of infections is projected to be much higher than reported cases, since we are testing and reporting only a minority of infections,” says Dr. Caroline Colijn, CoVaRR-Net’s Computational Biology and Modelling Pillar Deputy, Professor at Simon Fraser University and Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Evolution and Public Health. “Public safety measures such as physical distancing and masking have proven to be effective over the course of the pandemic. Our models suggest clearly that removing precautions will allow an increase in the number of infections,” says Dr. Colijn.
Because the rates of transmission and infection are projected to rise significantly after lifting restrictions, the health risks will be higher for individuals and families in the community, schools, and the workplace, and especially for vulnerable populations.
Increasing the number of infections can mean an increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths, as well, although high uptake of vaccinations and boosters provides a high level of protection against severe disease.
Reducing public health measures shifts risk assessment and management to individuals
One major consequence of lifting pandemic restrictions is that the responsibility for assessing and managing the risks of transmission, infection risk, severe illness, and death from COVID-19 shifts to individuals, families, employers, organizations, and businesses. Individuals must choose whether or not to wear masks indoors to protect themselves and others, get a vaccine booster, obtain a Rapid Antigen test or find and receive a PCR test when they have symptoms, and self-isolate for five days if they test positive for infection.
The danger is that many Canadians may assume or believe that because restrictions have been removed the risks have also been reduced or eliminated. They might then choose not to use preventive tools that are proven to work. “There is a mentality today that COVID is receding and the danger is over, but public officials need to tell people COVID hasn’t suddenly disappeared. It’s still putting people in hospital, causing long-term disability, and sometimes leading to death,” says Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, CoVaRR-Net’s Public Health, Health Systems and Social Policy Impacts Co-Lead and Professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
“Individuals and families will need to do their own risk assessment, and it will be even more important for people to use the preventive tools we have available to manage their own risk and the risks to others,” he adds.
Social, economic, and mental health issues forced governments to relax measures
Two years of growing pandemic fatigue, economic disruption, mental health challenges and social frustrations that culminated with the trucker convoy protests have all put pressure on governments to remove pandemic measures. “So did the social trend towards framing and perceiving pandemic measures as restrictions on social and personal freedom rather than public and personal health protections,” says Dr. Cheryl Camillo, CoVaRR-Net’s Public Health, Health Systems and Social Impacts Pillar Deputy, and Assistant Professor, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at University of Regina.
“In Alberta and Saskatchewan, the public messaging has concentrated on freedom and saying, ‘we want our freedom back.’ The timing was not coincidental but deliberate that when the trucker protestors were occupying Ottawa the Saskatchewan government announced it would relax the proof of vaccination policy,” suggests Dr. Muhajarine.
“Governments are changing their messaging, wanting to show the positive aspects of lifting restrictions,” says Dr. Camillo. “Lifting protections more gradually would have been better because without measures being reduced in a serious and thoughtful way, there will be negative consequences that could be with us for a long time. The main message used by some governments was ‘we have to learn to live with COVID.’ Unfortunately, that could also mean getting used to people becoming sick, missing work, having long-term health impacts, and dying of COVID, if precautions are not taken.”