While academics debate whether COVID-19 has transitioned to the endemic phase, it’s safe to say most Manitobans have moved on from the pandemic.
Barriers to travel are gone. Workers are back in offices. Mask-wearing is optional in most public places.
After two and a half years, life is pretty much back to normal for the vast majority of people.
Yet one inconvenient statistic remains: More people died in 2022 either from COVID-19 or in association with the disease in this province than during each of the first two years of the pandemic.
As of Dec. 19, the last date for which any data is available, 2,350 Manitobans who contracted COVID-19 died from the virus or a related condition.
In 2020, 667 Manitobans died of COVID-19. That figure rose to 725 COVID-19 fatalities in 2021.
And as of Dec. 19, 958 people in this province died from COVID-19 or in connection with COVID-19, according to Manitoba Public Health.
That creates the unusual situation where the deadliest year of the pandemic is also the year when most of us decided the pandemic was over.
“I think if you showed those statistics to the average Manitoban that they would be surprised,” said Dr. Jillian Horton, a Health Sciences Center internist and author who frequently comments on the pandemic. “I think most people on a multiple choice test would not correctly guess that more Manitobans have died this year of COVID than in the two prior years.
“I think that most people on the street, if they don’t have a reason to be following data and headlines very closely, would say, ‘Yeah, the pandemic is over, it’s not really a big deal any more,’ but that certainly is not the reality for patients and it’s not the reality inside our hospital.”
For experts in public health and epidemiology, the increase in COVID-19 deaths this year was no surprise. Thanks to more contagious SARS-CoV-2 variants such as Omicron and its subvariants, almost everyone got exposed to COVID-19 in 2022, those experts believe.
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That means the case-fatality rate for COVID-19 — the proportion of people who died from the virus after contracting it — plummeted drastically this year.
The implication is that the COVID-19 we have right now in North America is far less severe than the virus that circulated in the fall of 2020, mainly because of widespread vaccinations.
The notion that the new variants are inherently less severe is still not settled science, says Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, the University of Manitoba medical microbiologist who became the province’s best-known expert on emerging pathogens during the pandemic.
“You can have viruses that have low casualty rates that still have big impacts if they are spreading widely enough in the community,” Kindrachuk said in an interview.
“We have to appreciate that even if this ends up being a true milder form of the disease, if it’s spreading widely enough in the population, it can still have big impacts.”
Kindrachuk, whose work is now focused more on monitoring the spread of Mpox, says the emergence of new coronavirus variants is all but inevitable. However, that is only a concern if one or more of those variants prove to be significantly more transmissible, more severe or more capable of evading immunity.
The dire situation unfolding in China, which recently relaxed brutal pandemic restrictions, may not have any bearing on COVID-19 in North America, he says.
That’s because China developed a different, less effective COVID-19 vaccine, compared with the very effective mRNA products deployed across most of the Western world. China also vaccinated a smaller proportion of its population.
“China may be very distinct from what we see in the rest of the world because of those other factors, so we need to be cautious,” Kindrachuk said.
A greater danger in North America might be the absence of effective communication about keeping COVID-19 at bay.
Canada has not done enough to promote the benefits of ventilating buildings, wearing masks and keeping up with vaccine boosters, Horton says.
“We actually get a really poor grade when it comes to our overall national effort to address the suffering and the death and the burden of illness that comes along with the disease,” she said.
“People are really surprised when they hear things like COVID increases your risk of diabetes in the year after infection or the relationship between COVID and potential heart disease.”
It’s unclear whether widespread changes are coming to building designs to ensure better ventilation as they did in the 1920s after the end of the 1918-2020 influenza epidemic.
Kindrachuk says he is not certain Canada is better prepared for the next pandemic, even after learning hard lessons over the past three years.
“The infrastructure doesn’t get created overnight. The knowledge doesn’t get created overnight. The dissemination of that knowledge certainly doesn’t, either,” he said.
“We need to make those moves forward and appreciate that in the interim we will continue to see new viruses and new infectious diseases that emerge or re-emerge and we are going to have to try and learn very quickly.”