OTTAWA—It might not be a public health disaster.
But it could be.
That is what the “Freedom Convoy” on Parliament Hill is fighting for, according to some infectious diseases experts: a roll of the dice in a high-stakes game of life and death, where the tantalizing reprieve from COVID-19’s Omicron wave could be delayed with a surge of infections and dangerously packed hospitals if — as many protesters say they want — all pandemic health restrictions were lifted immediately.
“It’s basically just playing Russian roulette,” said Dr. Peter Jüni, scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 advisory table and professor in medicine and health policy at the University of Toronto.
“If it wouldn’t be a complete public health disaster, that would just be by sheer dumb luck.”
What started as a protest against vaccination mandates for truckers who cross the Canada-U.S. border has morphed into a larger call for the end of health restrictions designed and imposed across the country to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has so far killed more than 33,000 Canadians. Protesters demonstrating with the trucks that have blockaded downtown Ottawa in recent days have said they intend to stay until governments drop measures ranging from vaccination mandates to mask requirements in restaurants and shops.
The protest is occurring just as signs emerge that the Omicron wave is relenting, and as Ontario allowed restaurants to resume indoor dining at half capacity this week. Top doctors across the country have suggested that COVID-19 is likely to become endemic, and that it is time to start trying to safely live with it instead of continuing to attempt to stamp it out.
That said, Jüni believes it would be “silly” to lift COVID-19 restrictions immediately.
Emphasizing that the scenario is hypothetical and unlikely to happen, Jüni said lifting the restrictions now would create a spectrum of possibilities for the coming weeks of the pandemic. They range from the ideal scenario of a small or negligible increase of infections, to a “worst-case” scenario in which up to one third of Ontario’s hospital beds are filled with COVID-19 patients. Jüni said this would result in the need for field tents to house the sick, and force surgeries and other health-care services to be cancelled as resources are redeployed to fight the pandemic.
He also said the best-case scenario of a minimal bump in new COVID-19 cases is “unlikely,” given how Canada’s pandemic hasn’t resulted, as in some countries, in such large numbers of infections through multiple waves that even the unvaccinated would be ensured some degree of immunity.
Dr. Michael Gardam, former chief of staff at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital and now CEO of Prince Edward Island’s health authority, agreed it’s safe to say infections would increase if all health measures were lifted.
But the degree to which they would go up depends on how many people got COVID-19 during the Omicron surge, a statistic that experts can only guess, given the limits of public testing capacities, he said.
Gardam said the major risk of lifting all restrictions now is that provincial health systems are “fragile” — a situation other countries that are lifting restrictions, such as Denmark, don’t share. A quarter of Ontario’s hospitals were already operating beyond 100 per cent capacity before the pandemic, according to the province’s fiscal accountability watchdog. And in December 2019, the Ontario Hospital Association reported the province was tied with Mexico for the lowest number of hospital beds per capita of all countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
That’s why, even though Gardam agrees some COVID-19 restrictions should be lifted — such as federal testing requirements for incoming travellers — he says it would be a mistake to lift all of them at this point.
“There’s a lesson in all of this, which is the great myth in Canada that our health-care system is second to none,” he said. “It’s not true.”
Other experts argue the contagiousness of Omicron means that virus could be spreading widely regardless of whatever health restrictions are in place — meaning it’s time to roll them back and shift from a government-led response to a pandemic of individual responsibility.
“It’s not necessarily going to spike, and it’s not necessarily going to mean that more hospitals will be overwhelmed,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases physician with Trillium Health in Mississauga.
Of course, as Chakrabarti pointed out, there are consequences of health restrictions too that need to be considered. Over the past two years, businesses have struggled under orders to shut down, while the patience and mental health of millions of people has been tested by the ordeal of this historic crisis.
Chakrabarti also argued restrictions don’t help people who can’t work from home from getting infected, like people who work in manufacturing and live in large households.
He said it’s time to take the burden of saving the health care system off individuals and push the government to improve it, as the risks of the pandemic appear to be waning.
For Jüni, it’s not yet worth the risk of sparking a dangerous increase of infections, with spring around the corner and cases dropping.
“There is a considerable risk that it would break the camel’s back regarding our health care capacity,” he said.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga