A year after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, one Ontario infectious disease expert has a more positive outlook for the future as vaccines continue to receive authorization and be distributed.
"I think that in the big picture, we have our ticket out of the pandemic," infectious disease physician Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti told Yahoo Canada. "It's now in our hands and it's now going into our arms, so to speak."
"In the fall, even if we do see increased number of cases, we have protection against death and hospitalization. So we're not going to constantly have this fear of lockdown being held over us... We're almost there and we should have a positive outlook on what's going to happen in the next couple of months."
A COVID-19 lesson Canada can't forget
Being on the frontline of this pandemic for the past year, Dr. Chakrabarti identified that COVID-19 has revealed the importance of clear messaging, particularly when there is evolving knowledge. Dr. Chakrabarti said that clear messaging is one aspect of the pandemic response that hasn't always been up to par, particularly in Ontario.
"There's been lots of mixed messaging, lots of scaremongering, lots of finger wagging, whereas I think that if we do more positive messaging, going to the source of where the problem is and less blaming of people, I think that might have been much more helpful," he explained.
"I think in the future, hopefully we don't have another pandemic but if we do, having this type of learning would be very important to be able to both treat the pandemic from the medical standpoint, but also get good, effective messaging to the public."
In terms of our pandemic messaging, Dr. Chakrabarti would give that aspect of the COVID-19 response about a five our of 10.
"What I think was the problem is that there was a lot of blame-based messaging, a lot of putting the onus on the person," he said.
"Of course, there was a responsibility for us to try to keep our risk as low as possible, decreasing our contacts, but when things weren't going right there was a lot of telling people to stay home, stay home, stay home, where now in retrospect, there's a lot of other issues that were not being addressed, such as workplace transmission, the workplace to household transmission chain, long-term care, and these are things that would not have been affected by either lockdown or telling people to stay home."
While Dr. Chakrabarti certainly understands Ontario's response best, he did identify that B.C.'s COVID-19 response, specifically provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry's messaging style, was "much better."
"Not saying that things were perfect in B.C. either but I think these are the types of things that are important," he said.
"Going forward, if we ever do have a pandemic again or even some type of outbreak around the country, it's important for us to really focus on the areas to protect first and the vulnerable areas such as long-term care, congregating living settings, and also essential workplaces. These are the areas that we really, really need to concentrate on and protect better."
From a medical standpoint, Dr. Chakrabarti would give the pandemic response about a seven out of 10.
"What happened in long-term care was a tragedy and it is still happening [but] it was something that was completely preventable," he said.
"There were certain aspects, I think, that were well done,...getting our PPE levels, getting infection control in hospitals, being able to roll out new treatments, I think these things all were fairly good."
The most challenging time in the COVID-19 pandemic
Looking back at the past year, Dr. Chakrabarti identified that the very beginning was the most challenging time for him, when COVID-19 cases were being detected and it wasn't yet entirely known how it was going to affect people in Ontario and across Canada.
"That was, I think, quite scary because people at the same time were quite nervous, not really listening to the recommendations, wanting to do a lot more than we were recommending," he said. "It was very difficult but once we got over that hump, not to say that we became complacent, we kind of understood what the disease was about."
"That was very helpful, people's expectations were met, people were much less nervous and things got much easier, even when something like a second wave came down."
Moving forward, Dr. Chakrabarti explained that thinking about COVID-19 vaccines preventing severe illness is the way to look at the future, not necessarily eradicating COVID-19.
"One thing with respiratory viruses,...these are viruses that you cannot eradicate, it's natural for them to be circulating in the environment, and in temperate climates like ours we tend to see these in the wintertime and I expect that to happen with COVID-19 as well," he explained.
"The vaccination, what it's doing is two things,....preventing severe illness, death and being hospitalized and potentially being put on a ventilator, and it's helping us to cut transmission across the population. So when you put these two things together, our goal is not to get rid of it, we can never get rid of it, but it is to make it so that it is nothing severe."