This past weekend marked three years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and changed the course of our lives.
And while peoples’ lives have mostly returned to normal, the world continues to deal with the virus on a daily basis.
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Lisa Barrett weighed in on where we’ve been and where we’re going with the pandemic during an interview with CTV Atlantic’s Bruce Frisko Monday night.
While she says we are technically still in a pandemic, it is in a different phase right now.
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“Because not all of the world is as controlled as we are and we still are not quite at a point where we know enough, with enough certainty, for all people in our populations that we want to forget about it yet,” she says.
As of Monday morning, there had been 4.6 million cases of COVID-19 in Canada and more than 51,000 deaths.
Barrett hopes people understand some are paying a heavier price than others.
“There are people out there who are older who continue to take on most of the death, most of the poor health after COVID,” she says. “We really should be mindful that, for those people, this is just not something of the past, but something that’s very much on most peoples’ minds.”
The latest advice from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) says people at a high risk of serious illness should get another COVID-19 booster shot this spring.
NACI also recommends that anyone who hasn’t gotten a COVID-19 booster shot in the fall of 2022 get one as soon as possible.
Barrett says people should complete their vaccination series no matter their age.
“We know that that’s a safe thing to do and an important thing, both for your own health and for the health of people around you,” she says. “Not just for older people and immunocompromised.”
She says some people ask her if they should, or need, to get an additional dose of vaccine.
“Well, unless you’re darn certain that you’ve had COVID within the few months before when these next set of vaccines come out, unless you’ve had COVID in the couple of months before that, you really should be considering getting that vaccination,” she says.
“Which really speaks to the point that we aren’t done with this. And we actually don’t understand all of the complications in other parts of our body about COVID yet and it’s why we still should care and still should test.”
While previous COVID vaccinations and infections may be enough protection for some people, Barrett says that’s not the case for others.
“For older folks and those who are immunocompromised, even getting several doses of vaccine and having COVID isn’t as much recommended at this point to avoid getting another booster.”
At this point in the pandemic, masks are no longer required to be worn in most indoor settings, though the government of Canada still recommends people wear a mask in public indoor settings.
Barrett says masking isn’t necessarily either a perfect or useless strategy and that “somewhere in the middle is probably the truth.”
“A well-fitted mask in a crowded place with a lot of people around, either because you don’t want to get sick or because you’re quite likely to have some vulnerability, is a very sensible thing to do.”
She adds that some people, including herself, do get side looks from others for their choice to wear a mask.
“But I’m hoping that folks, especially people who want to stay well, who have vulnerable people around them and for vulnerable people who are out there, they still feel comfortable wearing a mask in those settings,” she says.
“Really, there still is a lot of virus around even if we don’t talk about it a lot and we don’t release as many numbers. So I’m here to tell you there’s still a fair bit of virus around and it’s still an OK thing to wear a mask.”
Barrett says testing for COVID-19 is still important three years into the pandemic, especially rapid testing.
“Rapid testing does a few things for you. It allows you to have control of what’s going on with you. At least to know whether it’s COVID or not. If you’ve got symptoms, test. If you get a negative result, test again,” she says.
“And if you’re positive and you’re somebody who’s older, and again, poor immune system in some situations, that may be enough to allow you to access treatment if it’s necessary in this province. That is your gateway; getting tested is your gateway to therapy if you need it and being assessed.”
Last week, the federal government announced $20 million in funding toward researching post COVID-19 condition, also known as “long COVID.”
Barrett says there is consensus in the medical community that there is something after a COVID-19 infection that’s “not quite right” with a number of people and it can last for long periods of time.
Health professionals have also seen COVID-19 raise the risk of several chronic diseases, including diabetes and hypertension.
“And we can’t predict exactly who it’s going to be — it’s not just older people, it’s not just people who’ve had bad disease,” says Barrett.
“That is why I’m a huge advocate, not just of continued research on COVID immunity and long-COVID, but also of people understanding that we don’t necessarily know all the long-term impacts, even in younger folks, of what happens.”
She adds that the uncertainty surrounding the long-term effects of COVID-19 is a good reason to avoid repeat infections.
“Test when you’re feeling symptomatic and maintain a few easy things, like handwashing and masks to keep yourself and others safe,” she says.
“We don’t have all the answers yet, we’re working hard. Vaccines are exceptionally important, but they don’t explain everything for us yet. Get your vaccines, but please be aware that continuously getting COVID is not on my list of recommended medical activities at this point.”