By John Filion, Councillor Ward 18 (Willowdale)
The Province's decision to no longer require masks in indoor public spaces, starting Monday, has left me with unwelcome choices.
The first of these was a Council vote last week on whether to lift Toronto's mask mandate to match Ontario's move, as recommended by our highly-competent Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa.
Generally, I see danger in politicians not following unbiased expert advice, and I can't imagine ever voting against a recommendation that provided greater health protection. But this time I was the 1 in a 24-1 decision.
A rapidly declining Omicron wave has justified the end of most restrictions, I believe, because the benefits outweighed the risks. Allowing businesses to fully re-open, for example, was essential to their survival.
But what is the countervailing benefit that justifies the risk of dropping masks at this time? Isn't a minor inconvenience while out shopping greatly outweighed by the protection to retail workers and customers?
After months of confusing advice about masks early in the pandemic, we finally landed on masks being an effective way to protect ourselves and others. The knowledge that Covid is spread through small particles emitted when we talk or breathe makes this true more than ever. In short, nobody in the grocery store is as protected as they would be if everyone in it is wearing a mask.
The change in regulations does not prevent anyone from wearing a mask, nor does it stop individual businesses from continuing to require them. But how are stores supposed to navigate this lose-lose situation, bound to alienate some customers whichever way they go?
Which brings me to my second unwelcome choice: do I continue to visit businesses that don't require masks? For me, that requires a continuous re-evaluation of multiple risk factors weighed against the benefits.
How much Covid is out there? At the moment, improving case counts should not be confused with low numbers. The Ontario Science Table estimated yesterday that Ontario's daily case count was still in the 15,000 to 20,000 range and likely to go up as restrictions ease – as is already happening in many European countries. I'll be looking for much lower numbers.
If exposed to someone who has Covid, are you less likely to catch it than before? The reverse seems true. Omicron is very much more contagious than previous variants, and the BA.2 Omicron subvariant currently circulating in Ontario is more contagious still. In addition, vaccination provides far less protection from Omicron infection – although it is also true that symptoms tend to be milder and vaccination still protects against serious health risk.
Is Omicron no more dangerous than the flu? All of us know people who've had Covid and reported only flu-like symptoms. But that is certainly not the case with everybody; many are in higher risk categories or in close contact with those who are.
Also, even those with mild symptoms have potential long term effects. In addition to "long Covid" – the condition in which symptoms such as fatigue and brain fog linger – several recent studies point to other possible impacts. Until we know more, Covid is not something to be trifled with.
When would have been a better time to drop the mask mandate? In a nutshell, when individuals have greater ability to protect themselves, apart from avoiding contact with the outside world.
For starters, the Province would need to again make PCR testing widely available. That would allow us to accurately track the level of community spread. It would also have the important benefit of unlocking access to highly-effective new antiviral medications, which you can't get without a prescription requiring a positive PCR test.
I would also have been inclined to wait for Omicron-specific vaccines now being developed by both Pfizer and Moderna. These will, hopefully, return us to the point where the vaccinated are not only protected from severe illness but also from getting infected.
In the meantime, please guard against serious illness by getting three vaccine doses. The City continues to operate many vaccine clinics on a walk-in basis, including Willowdale locations at Mitchell Field, Gibson House Museum and the Yonge-Shepard Centre next week. And continue to protect yourself and others by wearing an N95 or KN95 mask. Look for ones with the numbers 2019 on them, not the older 2006 models.
Finally, two years into this, can we ever thank our health care providers enough for risking their personal and emotional well-being by looking after us? The song of the week is for them.