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LILLEY: Caution, not panic is key to dealing with new variant

Ontario Premier Doug Ford attends an announcement at Mississauga Hospital, in Mississauga, Ont., Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

It’s just about a week since most of us found out about the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 and to say the world has been on edge would be an understatement. There have been travel bans put in place around the world to varying degrees and plenty of fears that lockdowns would return just in time for Christmas.

Depending on where you live, that might happen. Several European countries started lockdowns last week before news of the variant broke including Austria and Slovakia. Germany is talking about a lockdown of the unvaccinated and Israel and Japan have shut their borders to the outside world.

Against that backdrop, a call for calm from Ontario Premier Doug Ford. At a hospital funding announcement on Wednesday, Ford addressed the new variant for the first time in public.

“The discovery of the variant here in Ontario is cause for concern, but it’s not cause for panic,” Ford said.

It was good to hear him say that as so many people worry that we’re just days away from returning to lockdown. He also praised the federal government for bringing in border measures quickly to buy Canada some time.

“Every day, we learn more about the Omicron virus, about how quickly it can spread and how severe it may be. We’re learning about how effective our vaccines are, and every day we hold off more cases entering our country, the more time we have to learn and prepare,” Ford said.

I agree with Ford that the federal government was right to act early in imposing travel bans from areas with a known concentration of cases. They have also instituted testing requirements and quarantine for certain incoming travellers. It’s not the sole solution but it will buy us time to learn more about this variant.

Within two to three weeks we should know whether it is actually more transmissible, whether it is a more virulent and deadly strain or if it produces milder symptoms than Delta, especially among those who are vaccinated. That is why travel restrictions matter.

They are not as some have claimed, racist.

No one claimed the ban on flights from the U.K. last year was racist but it would have helped more if it had come earlier. Same with travel bans from China and other hotspots in the first wave, it is about buying time to learn and prepare.

We don’t need to panic, as Ford rightly said, and we don’t need to head back into lockdown. The report from the Canadian Medical Association this week showed the doubling of opioid overdose deaths, the 4,000 excess deaths from missed medical treatments and other harmful health impacts of lockdowns.

What we can do is ensure testing upon arrival, proper screening for all, quarantine for those who need it and any other measures that will limit the introduction or spread of a new variant until we know more.

  1. A man wearing a face mask walks along Yonge Street in Toronto on November 4, 2021.

    KINSELLA: Some needed good news as we face Omicron

  2. Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott speaks at a Shoppers Drug Mart at Sherway Gardens in Etobicoke March 19, 2021.

    Omicron threatens to slow down Ontario's reopening

  3. One of dozens of abandoned kiosks and ticket counters on Tuesday, Nov. 30 2021 in Marrakech Menara Airport in Morocco.

    Canadians stranded abroad as Omicron COVID variant cancels flights

Canada as a whole and Ontario in particular has a far higher level of vaccine protection than countries we are watching deal with Omicron be that South Africa, Britain or the Netherlands. We also have lower case counts as well, other than South Africa which had been low prior to this variant emerging but is now experiencing a spike.

Our most vulnerable are protected. Of Ontario’s 10,000 COVID deaths, 59% were in those over the age of 80 and that age group has a fully vaccinated rate of 96.3% and they are now being offered booster shots. The second most vulnerable group, 70-79-year-olds, has a double vax rate of 95.8%.

We need to be cautious, especially for the vulnerable, but we do not need to panic and head down the dangerous road of lockdowns. Protect the vulnerable, keep hospitals open, exercise personal caution depending on your situation.

Unless and until things change for the worse, which we need to hope they do not, that is all we need to do.