Mild or not, Omicron could be more disruptive than any strain we’ve seen before

OPINION: Vaccines are still very good at preventing deaths. But rapid transmission and exponential growth mean that services both public and private are in jeopardy
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 07, 2022
In the next little while, not all the services we’ve relied on to get us through the pandemic will be guaranteed. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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The next month in Ontario is going to be difficult, and for many it will be the most difficult part of the pandemic to date. The Omicron variant has already caused the most serious wave of new infections since the pandemic began, and while it is less harmful on average to the people it infects, it’s simply generating so many new cases of COVID-19 that the province is, as of Friday morning, reporting a new record for hospitalizations. Deaths, as measured by a seven-day average, are already well above the rate of the past several months — higher than they’ve been since July – and will almost certainly climb further.

This is all incredibly serious. And, for the people who die and for their loved ones, it will be tragic. 

The good news is that the vaccines are still very good at preventing deaths, and the roll-out of third doses, although chaotic, messy, and often inequitable, has moved speedily. “Speedy” has been one of Ontario’s go-to moves throughout the pandemic. 

The bad news is that COVID-19 doesn’t need to be deadly to be incredibly disruptive, and it’s this part — and what it’ll means for the coming weeks — that I don’t think people have fully appreciated yet. The short version is this: Thanks to the Omicron variant, huge numbers of people already have or are going to get COVID-19. Many others will be close contacts of someone who has it. That’ll mean isolating for five days (for the large majority of people who are already vaccinated) or longer (for those who aren’t). Given how quickly the virus is spreading, this is going to pose an enormous challenge for basically every large employer, public and private.

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We’ve already seen this with governments and hospitals: Toronto has stated that, in its worst-case planning scenario, the city could see absentee rates of 50 to 60 per cent, and it’s already begun shutting library branches and shifting resources to preserve core functions. (In case you’ve forgotten, “core functions” for municipalities in Ontario include things like delivering clean water and collecting garbage — the kinds of things you don’t want to let slide when you’re already facing a public-health emergency.) Metrolinx has had to cancel multiple scheduled bus and train runs because of labour shortages. And, of course, the current public-health restrictions are due in part to the fact that the province’s hospitals and long-term-care homes are struggling to find staff to meet their current needs, not to mention the cases yet to come.

This is why I’m somewhat more sanguine about the current closure of Ontario schools, as disruptive as it is for households around the province (including mine): I’m not convinced that, if schools had opened this week as previously scheduled, they’d still be open next week or the week after. I’m also not convinced that, if they were open, they’d actually be conducive to learning. (The example of schools boards in the US, where many either closed or have struggled to stay open among Omicron, is worth considering.) Even though a lot of teachers got their third doses over the holidays — and are getting them now in preparation for the planned reopening on January 17 — we’re still looking at some very chaotic weeks ahead of us during which a great many teachers will necessarily be off sick or self-isolating because of a close contact. Omicron is simply moving too fast for anything else to happen now.

But it’s not just the public sector that’s going to struggle with Omicron going forward. We’ve already seen airlines cancel hundreds of flights in Canada due to labour shortages and the general chaos of Omicron. Right now, there’s no reason to believe that any large employer is (pardon the pun) immune from this kind of disruption. That includes grocery stores; some in the United States are now relying on increased overtime among uninfected workers to cover the absences from those infected or otherwise isolating. Some retailers have had to reduce business hours or simply close locations entirely because of the lack of available workers.

The long and short of it is that the pandemic has entered a phase that could very well be more intrusive and disruptive than any we’ve seen since March 2020: business closures, instead of coming through the sometimes fickle decisions of public-health authorities, will be forced by the entirely unpredictable and merciless combination of rapid transmission and exponential growth. In the next little while, not all the services we’ve relied on to get us through the pandemic thus far will be guaranteed: cities will struggle to maintain reliable transit, and people might show up at the doors of a grocery store only to learn that it’s closed that day or that its business hours have changed.

It’s also not obvious that public policy will be able to move the needle very much. The arrival of more rapid tests, whatever increases to vaccination we can manage, more widespread use of N95 masks — these will all help at the margins, and the margins matter when we’re talking about life-and-death choices. But there are hard limits to what the province or the federal government can do now, and they’re stuck fighting Omicron with the results of choices made months (and, in the case, of our under-invested hospital system, years) ago.

So it’s, uh, not a great start to 2022. We are not in the driver’s seat right now, any of us. This, too, will pass, and for now the only thing any of us can do is isolate as much as we can, get vaccinated and boosted if we’re eligible, and otherwise do all the things we’ve had to do in previous lockdowns. Because, I guess, practice makes perfect.

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