January 2022 started much the same as January 2021 — spike in cases, capacity limits, school closures, etc. With the pandemic now in it’s fifth wave, we’ve got some questions and we know you do too.
That’s why we invited public health authority and physician Dr. Samantha Nutt to join us for our first Virtual Speakers Series event of 2022. She joined us for a virtual Q&A where she answered YOUR questions about the pandemic, from vaccine effectiveness and Omicron to mental health and what happens next.
Questions and answers have been condensed.
Vaccines and Omicron
If I’m double or triple-vaxxed, how worried should I be about Omicron?
The harsh reality of Omicron is that it’s here and most us will get it, but I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. Of course, it depends on your age and underlying risk factors, but if you are double vaxxed or, even better, boosted and not in a high-risk demographic or group, chances are you will have mild or minimal symptoms.
If vaccines work, why are we in such a panic of Omicron? Should we be panicked?
“Never panic. We just make bad decisions when we panic.” The speed in which Omicron spread throughout the world and the number of people who became infected was immediately quite scary for a majority of people. But it has shown that the vaccines are extremely effective.
A recent study from Switzerland during the Omicron wave showed that unvaccinated people are very vulnerable and account for a majority of the hospitalizations and deaths. Those who are partially vaccinated have a reasonable level of protection, and those who are fully vaccinated, especially boosted, have outstanding protection.
So, if you haven’t gotten your booster, get it, and if you have, rest assured there is no reason to panic. Protect those loved ones who are vulnerable and at high risk but otherwise it’s time for us to psychologically transition to living with COVID.
You were one of many doctors and community leaders who wrote an open letter recommending that schools stay open. Why is this so important and what are the necessary steps to ensure this happens?
There is no question it’s better for kids, parents, and society in general to get kids back in school. Ontario — Toronto in particular — has had the longest lockdown of schools anywhere in the world and we are seeing the impact of that on the development and mental health of our children. These deficits are potentially life-long based on past disruptions in education, so there is a tremendous urgency to get kids back in school and back into those supportive environments.
The question should be about how we keep that circle of care safe — teachers, parents, etc. We need to get kids vaccinated, especially high school kids who experience COVID similar to adults.
It’s also important for teachers to feel safe and have the resources they need, like masking and ventilation. And then it’s important for parents to take the necessary precautions. If a child has symptoms, take your rapid tests and, even if negative, keep them at home until the symptoms are gone. That’s same for children under five who don’t have access to vaccines yet. Severe cases of COVID in this age group are still very low.
The reality is that Omicron is everywhere. Cases in schools reflect community transmission; there is no evidence that schools drive community transmission.
What do you think about people and organizations wanting to return to the office? What’s the best way for employees and employers to handle this and when would be a good time to plan a return?
It’s a question of choice. We all have different levels of risk, depending on age and underlying factors. It’s important to give employees, to the extent that you can, the choice so they can make informed decisions based on their own level of risk. There are some jobs, like teachers and healthcare workers, who can’t opt out, so then it becomes about navigating the risk and ensuring you provide them the best forms of protections you can.
Knowing there is a seasonal component, we’re looking at the end of April/early May as a safe and appropriate time to bring people back to the office.
This is true for events as well, barring new variants appearing that are more serious than omicron. Viruses tend not to behave that way. Once they are milder, they don’t tend to regress and become more severe again. So, there’s no reason to not believe that we will be in a much better situation in April through to Fall.
If in-person events return in April/May, what safety protocols should be in place?
Safety protocols should be driven by community transmission rates. If a vast majority of the population are boosted or have had omicron and our cases are low, then that can factor into your decision-making. Of course, it’s hard to make predictions but I’ll give it a shot.
We still need to be careful, so maybe don’t have massive, large-scale events. But given the seasonal nature and patterns we’ve seen throughout the world, if we are in the low 100s of cases in April/May and it’s an average sized event in Canada, where most of the population is vaccinated, events should be back at it. It doesn’t hurt to ask for proof of vaccination (if it’s still a requirement) and it doesn’t hurt to ask for rapid test if they have one, but we will still have protection from vaccines and Omicron at that point. Masking, at that stage, will also likely be individual choice.
There’s a lot of restrictions in place when it comes to travel. What are your feelings in general about travel and how do we move forward with this?
By February/March, hopefully people will feel they can travel again. Part of the challenge is that there has been a lot of deflection and scapegoating around travel as a main community driver, but the data doesn’t support this.
People are concerned about future variants traveling because this is how we got omicron, but unless we never want to travel again, we have to learn how to navigate this. Variants can come from anywhere — in our community or outside of it — this is why we need to push for vaccine equity more than anything.
A reason not to travel is that healthcare systems everywhere are overwhelmed, and you may end up somewhere where they don’t have the resources to help you. Or you may test positive and have to wait 10 days to return to Canada. But this comes down to personal choice. It’s all about balance — balancing family time and mental health. Look at case counts where you are traveling to, the state of their healthcare system, as well as your own individual risks.
We’re seeing a spike in mental health issues. How can we support young people with this?
The key for young people is normalcy, a return to their lives. Keeping them locked in isolation from their supports, like teachers, is having a profound impact on their mental health.
We’ve seen an increase in eating disorders, suicide attempts, other forms of self-harm, particularly among adolescents. As parents, teachers, and healthcare workers, we need to be on the outlook, have the right conversations, and provide them with the support they need.
From my experience working in warzones with kids who have seen extreme atrocities and abuse and are very traumatized, what helps the most is consistency, stability, and opportunity. The sense that their lives can move forward. They can have hopes, dreams, and feel supported in pursing them. This is helpful for kids in the context of the pandemic as well. Be supportive, understanding, and make sure they are getting back together with their friends and not living in constant state of fear and anxiety.
Resiliency is hard. But for all of us, getting together with family and friends, within the context of the pandemic, so smaller numbers, brings huge psychological relief. We still need to find the joy.
When is this going to be over? How long can we expect to live like this?
Pandemics do end, or at least transition into something less severe. The flu pandemic is an example of that. There will be a version of COVID circulating indefinitely. The difference is that it won’t be dominating our lives and it won’t be as serious as it has been, just like the flu, unless you are particularly vulnerable and then you have to take certain precautions.
It will become seasonal, but outside of that we probably won’t be giving it a second thought. I suspect we’ll be moving towards annual vaccinations, whether combined with the flu shot or administered like it.
“If I were to put a date on when this particular cycle is going to look a lot better and we can all be out dancing on the streets, kissing our loved ones, and having parties in our home, I think that there is every reason for us to be excited for April Fool’s Day this year, if not before.”
What can we expect to see next year?
Evidence suggests that we aren’t going to lock society down continually forever because of a bad flu and cold season. There are some scientists who believe that Omicron is the live vaccine we’ve been waiting for as it’s not as lethal, not as serious, and most people who get it will retain a level of protection from that for at least six months. So, if that continues, there is no reason to believe that COVID will be the one virus that becomes more severe over time. It’s more likely to become less and less significant, and as a result, our reaction to it will follow the same trend and become less significant as well.
Dr. Samantha Nutt is a medical doctor and founder of the internationally renowned non-profit War Child. She has been on the front line of many of the world’s major crises and is a sought-after authority on current affairs, public health, war, international aid, and foreign policy.
She draws on her incredible wealth of experience to share unique insights into global issues and what they mean to her audiences.
Interested in learning more? Email us at [email protected].