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Public health mandates could return, Tam warns, but favours lighter touch in future

Top doc hopes Canada is past the pandemic crisis, uncertain what the coronavirus will do next
Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. Tang says governments should be prepared to recall public health measures in case of another serious variant of COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Canadian governments should be ready to resume public health measures if another serious variant of COVID-19 emerges, even as they scale back mandates for masks and vaccines, the country’s chief public health officer said Friday.

Several provinces have announced plans to put an end to COVID-19 restrictions, signalling a return to normalcy now that the Omicron wave is receding.

“We cannot remain at a heightened state of emergency forever. We have to begin to heal,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said earlier this month, announcing the province would lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions, including gathering limits and indoor masking rules, on March 1.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Friday that she indeed hopes Canada is past the pandemic crisis and is now in a transition phase, headed toward recovery.

But it’s still uncertain what the novel coronavirus that has upended life around the world for nearly two years will do next, and she said Canada must be ready to bring some public health measures back if case counts begin to rise sharply again.

The latest data shows Canada is headed in a good direction.

Weekly case counts are down by 26 per cent nationally, Tam said, and the number of people with COVID-19 in hospitals and intensive care units has declined by more than 20 per cent since last week. There are still 6,228 new cases in Canada as of Feb. 24 and that figure is an underestimate, since many jurisdictions have restricted molecular tests to people at high risk.

Tam said it is possible things could change again in September, when respiratory viruses typically resurge.

“We need to be ready for the fall, in case we need to up our game again,” she said.

The goal, she said, will this time be to limit stiff restrictions in favour of “less heavy” measures such as mask mandates.

She said Canada is in a better position now to strike a balance between returning to normal and guarding against severe disease, and heavy restrictions are not as needed.

“But you know, I don’t think we should be able to discount them entirely,” she said.

Several provinces have decided to pull back on the mandatory use of masks, particularly in schools, while others have promised to do away with them altogether.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention significantly loosened federal mask-wearing guidelines Friday, so most Americans will no longer be advised to wear masks in indoor public settings.

Even though masks will soon no longer be mandatory in many parts of Canada, Tam said they are still a fundamental layer of protection and urged Canadians to keep wearing them.

“People should choose to wear masks. It should be probably one of the most foundational layers that you can use,” she said.

Switching away from mandates may be hard for some people, including businesses, because it comes down to personal choice, she said. That’s why the government should empower people to make the best choices they can to protect themselves.

Even people who choose not to cover their faces shouldn’t throw their masks in the bin just yet. They should be at the ready in the event another, more dangerous variant evolves, Tam said.

Traces of the BA.2 sublineage of the Omicron variant have already become more common in Canada, and account for about 10 per cent of confirmed cases, the latest data shows.

In countries such as Denmark, where BA.2 is dominant, it does not appear to cause more severe disease. But it has proven more transmissible than Omicron, which spread at an incredible rate.

“If a variant occurs and people are impacted severely, then I’m sure all these policies will again be re-examined,” Tam said.

—Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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