On March 9, the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal welcomed Dr. Karl Weiss, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Jewish General Hospital in Montréal, for a virtual presentation. Dr. Weiss gave an update on the health situation and presented new approaches to living with the virus.
Status of COVID-19 in Québec and elsewhere
Between January 2020 and March 2022, some 450 million people have been infected with COVID-19, and nearly 6 million people have died from the disease. In reality, according to Dr. Weiss, those numbers could be five times larger on a global scale. However, a fairly high number of people are now vaccinated.
“The Omicron variant is very different from the other variants and the original strain from China, which closely resembled each other. That’s why Omicron has spread so quickly through the population.” – Dr. Karl Weiss, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Jewish General Hospital in Montréal
In Québec, Omicron accounted for 23% to 24% of cases on December 12 and over 90% of them by December 25. Within two weeks, the variant spread through our population, and 2 million Quebecers were infected. While the fifth wave was felt in hospitalizations, the number of patients admitted to ICUs remained stable. Hospitalizations primarily consisted of vaccinated individuals admitted for a reason other than a COVID-19 infection but who tested positive for the virus.
“Omicron made a trade: less virulence for increased severity. That’s what we often see with viruses.”
In Canadian hospitals, among the patients admitted with COVID-19 during the fifth wave, 40% had not been admitted because of this disease. The virus is no longer the primary condition for hospital admissions.
COVID-19: The new flu?
The COVID-19 virus is more inflammatory than the flu and has a higher mortality rate. In addition, scientists do not yet know the outcome of long COVID. However, according to Dr. Weiss, unlike the flu, there are a number of vaccines available, which are much more effective than flu vaccines, and more drugs are appearing on the market.
“This may be our new flu, which will take us from the pandemic to the endemic stage.”
Solutions for learning to live with the virus
“Masks are still effective. Masking alone, among a vaccinated population, significantly reduces the chances of testing positive.”
Fabric masks reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 by 56%, surgical masks by 66% and N95 masks by 83%.
He gave an example of another approach to learning to live with the virus during the talk: the Test to Treat initiative, which was launched in the United States in March 2022. Americans are encouraged to visit a pharmacy to get tested if they think they are infected with COVID-19. If they test positive, they are treated on the spot, regardless of whether they are at risk for developing complications. This reduces the risk of hospitalization by 85%. Dr. Weiss believes that society will have a better chance of continuing to function with this type of initiative.
That said, the use and availability of rapid tests in the workplace are the pillars of new strategies aimed at containing outbreaks.
“We need to transition to COVID 6.0. The approach in the future cannot be the one from the past. Will we have more waves? Possibly, probably. We shouldn’t be talking about waves anymore, but about an endemic situation.”
Dr. Weiss recommends that we approach managing COVID-19 in a similar way as we approach the flu, i.e. with more democratic and functional testing, and by putting all the pieces in place to create a system that allows for greater flexibility.
“From now on, we have to look at COVID as being in society as opposed to society being in COVID.”