A year ago, before vaccinations, the rules for avoiding COVID were relatively straightforward: stay home when possible; keep six feet away from anyone outside your household; wear a mask; wash your hands a lot.
We're now at a time when the path forward looks safer but not so brightly lit.
The advent of summer, the departure of the third wave, and the arrival of enough vaccine for everybody made some of those precautions seem unnecessary. Being fully vaccinated, it was assumed, made you very unlikely to catch COVID and even less able to spread it.
Besides, it was initially thought that even 75% of the population fully vaccinated was enough to create a level of herd immunity that would greatly reduce the spread - even among the unvaccinated.
These optimistic scenarios haven’t unfolded, leaving us in a confusing place: we're much more protected than we were, but less so than we expected to be heading into fall and towards another unwelcome COVID winter.
The number of new daily cases in Ontario is currently around 800, with an upward trend. Some 80 to 85% of these cases are among the unvaccinated. When you combine that statistic with the low percentage of the eligible population (12 and over) who aren't vaccinated, it means that COVID is very active among those who've chosen not to be protected.
We now know that the Delta variant is easier to catch than the common cold, and that even the vaccinated can catch it – most likely from the unvaccinated - and spread it.
Today's numbers for Ontario paint the picture of a risk nobody should ignore. Of the 176 hospitalized with COVID (but not in Intensive Care), 136 are unvaccinated, 10 partially vaccinated, and 30 fully vaccinated. Of the additional 142 in ICUs, 120 are unvaccinated, 9 partially vaccinated and 13 fully vaccinated.
I haven't been able to get data on where the fully vaccinated caught it and what their underlying health conditions are, information that would be helpful for those of us trying to assess the relative safety of different situations.
For example, I've been mentally planning a large family Thanksgiving dinner for several months. But is it safe to have a relative staying with us who, although fully vaccinated, would be flying in before federal restrictions take effect requiring all passengers to have two shots?
What about the fully vaxxed family member who works as a teacher, surrounded all day by young children who aren't yet vaccinated? How likely is she to unwittingly carry the virus to a dinner table that might be shared with an elderly family member?
I'm weighing factors such as the amount of COVID in the community around the school, how long the flight is and whether it's coming from somewhere like Alberta where infections are out of control. I'm thinking about the age and overall health of the other people who'd be visiting.
These are, however, complex calculations which cannot practically be carried out with everyday interactions. So I try to develop a sense for what feels unsafe and try to mitigate the risks as much as possible.
Apart from double-checking that anyone coming into close contact is fully vaccinated, I'll likely encourage the air traveller to visit at a different time and may replace the Thanksgiving dinner with a lunch, which can be held outdoors, where the risk of transmission is far less.
I'll ask anyone who develops symptoms in their household to please bow out.
If indoors, I'll create as much ventilation as possible. This is an important factor that is sometimes overlooked. To view a simulation prepared by the New York Times showing the importance of good ventilation, click here.
If entering crowded indoor places, I'll make sure I'm wearing a high-quality mask. For guidance on what that is, click here.
I'll keep watching vaccination rates, COVID case counts, news of new variants, information on the waning effectiveness of vaccines over time, and whatever other surprises COVID is sure to throw our way.
That's a lot of work. So in the end I'll just increase my awareness as much as possible and apply good old common sense.
Mostly, I'll do my best to make my home a safe haven: friends and family in, COVID out. Which makes me think of one of my favourite songs about home, which you can treat as a romantic song or one about the comfort of having a visitor you love.
The main link is a television performance by Bonnie Raitt but I'm adding a second link to the studio version which includes the best lines: "A window breaks down a long dark street, And a siren wails in the night. But I'm all right 'cause I have you here with me, And I can almost see through the dark there's light."