That was the message from Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, during a conference call Thursday with reporters about the city’s COVID-19 situation. The optimistic statement came on the same day that officials at the Ottawa Hospital said for the first time in a year and a half they did not have a single COVID-19 patient in their care.
Every key indicator of community transmission in the city continues to plunge, as the number of fully vaccinated eligible residents hits new highs every day and had approached 50% by the end of last week. Coverage among those over 18 reached 52% on Friday.
The days of lockdowns are behind us, I think that’s pretty much certain.– Raywat Deonandan, University of Ottawa
“The vaccine is winning out over the transmission of COVID right now,” Etches said.
And yet, despite the victorious tone, health officials across the region, including Etches, remain cautious.
While Ontario announced Friday that it will enter the next phase of its reopening plan earlier than expected, many restrictions introduced to slow the spread of the virus remain in place for now: meals inside are still banned, theaters and gymnasiums are still closed, and major public events are suspended.
As close as we get to something that looks like pre-pandemic normal, we’re not there yet. Collective immunity remains an elusive and moving target.
“It is too early to say exactly when we can be confident that the immunity is sufficient to really be able to revert to any [precautions] at all, ”Etches said. “We must continue these protections until we are convinced that the level of immunization and immunity against infection in our population is sufficient.
Delta variant, children under 12 are of concern
Two major concerns continue to concern public health officials: the unpredictability of new worrisome variants like the now dominant delta variant, and the portion of the population that remains unvaccinated.
This notably includes children aged 5 to 11 for whom vaccines have not yet been approved, but who will almost certainly return to classrooms in September.
“Herd immunity is going to be elusive,” said Dr. Robert Cushman, acting medical officer of health at the Renfrew County and District Health Unit, who recently urged young residents to do their part by getting the vaccine.
Cushman believes three-quarters of eligible Renfrew County residents will be fully immunized within the next two weeks, but that still leaves a worrying number of adults and children unvaccinated.
“I don’t want to be pessimistic, but this is going to be with us for a while,” he said.
By “a while,” Cushman means we could be fighting new variants and getting booster shots for the next three to five years.
“So it’s not a return to normal, it’s a return to a new normal,” he said. “Unfortunately, it will be some time before you can really feel safe in an environment with a large number of people. “
Room for optimism
For Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, medical officer of health at the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, vaccine approval for children five years and older is a critical step towards achieving that elusive 90% coverage. and the gradual reopening of the region in the fall.
“This is why I am saying that as we move into the fall months it will become more and more clear that we have a greater herd immunity effect. Because I am very confident that we will have vaccines for five years and more, ”he said. .
Once this younger cohort is vaccinated, Roumeliotis believes the situation will start to improve dramatically.
“I think between now and fall we will have significant progress in this regard, and if all goes well between fall and Christmas … we will be heading towards what we call a kind of almost pre-pandemic normalcy.” He predicted. .
So what will it look like on the pitch?
For Roumeliotis, this will mean no masking or physical distancing requirement, but “obviously with precautions for symptomatic people”. Even then, health officials will remain “hyper-vigilant” against the new variants, he said, and some healthy measures like frequent hand washing are likely to remain.
The light at the end of the tunnel
In an interview last week, University of Ottawa epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan said he too can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but reaching it will require keeping precautions in place until that we hit that magical 90% immunization goal.
It’s a goal, Deonandan said, that will be difficult to achieve until children under 12 are vaccinated.
“Am I optimistic? Yes, because we kind of know what needs to be done, ”Deonandan said. “We have the power to control the epidemic if we do these things. “
While Deonandan once thought mandatory masking would be over by the end of the year, he’s now a little less optimistic. Still, he thinks we are on the right track towards a wider reopening.
“The days of containment are behind us, I think that’s pretty much certain,” he said.
“Restaurants will be used… businesses will be open, people will work more, the streets will be full of people and schools will definitely be open. This will not be normal, however. You won’t see normal until Christmas maybe. “