Some medical experts have speculated the Omicron variant could shift COVID-19 from “pandemic” to “endemic,” meaning the circulating virus no longer has the steep waves of outbreaks that hammer hospital capacity and force society to adapt.
Instead, an endemic virus continues to circulate through our population — but in a way we can handle, like the flu.
“It’s difficult to say when we could reach herd immunity,” said Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, responding in French to a reporter’s question about endemicity on Friday.
“It’s really a matter of using all of the tools at our disposal in combination: vaccination and layers of protection, respecting public health advice.”
Tracking Omicron: what the spread of the variant shows
By using these tools, Canadians will learn what’s necessary for finding “a balance to allow society to function well, with a certain degree of transmission, while avoiding mortality,” Njoo said.
This balance will become clearer, he added, “in the next weeks and months.”
Medical experts have said Omicron has “ideal” characteristics for ushering in an era of living with COVID-19.
“It is highly transmissible and less virulent. That’s the perfect mix,” infectious disease specialist Dr. Gerald Evans said in an interview with Global News last week.
Because it is more transmissible, that means it can “outcompete the other viruses,” like the more deadly Delta strain, pushing them further and further out of the picture.
It also ticks the second box when it comes to endemicity, according to Evans: Omicron “produces a milder form of illness.”
“For any virus to become endemic, it cannot be killing off the population of hosts that it infects,” Evans said.
Altogether, Omicron is “rapidly increasing” the amount of immunity around the world, Evans added, “especially” when combined with vaccination.
Omicron puts pressure on already strained health care workers
However, speaking Friday, Njoo cautioned that an Omicron infection can only confer a limited, unpredictable amount of natural immunity.
“We know that for Omicron, we could have some immunity for some time. But it doesn’t protect against other variants and virus strains — so it can help a little bit for some time, but it’s not a long-term herd immunity,” Njoo explained.
“With vaccination, we know that (vaccines) are very effective to protect people against severe illness but with Omicron, we’ve seen it’s not as good against infection and transmission.”
Meanwhile, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam says Canadians in some regions are already starting to see some stabilization of Omicron outbreaks — and cases could peak “in the next days.”
“I think all of this does align together with the international data to say that we could be like others seeing a sharp, sharp increase and then it coming down fairly fast,” Tam said.
“But I think we’re all just wanting to be a bit cautious about pronouncing on that until we’ve seen more information.”
© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.