In light of rising COVID-19 cases and the highly transmissible BA.2 Omicron subvariant, Ontario Public Health is calling for a return to masking.
The agency released an updated risk assessment on April 8 and it warns of the dangers and unknowns of the more contagious BA.2 subvariant. It warns that while vaccination can help reduce symptomatic infection, there’s still a risk of Post Acute COVID-19 Syndrome (PACS), or long COVID, which can occur even in mild cases.
“Masking with high-quality masks (i.e., good fit and filtration) at a population level is a public health measure that can be effective at reducing transmission while enabling community settings and activities to continue functioning,” the risk assessment reads.
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Universal masking, the assessment said, could be reimplemented in indoor public settings and other high-risk areas.
Public Health Ontario’s assessment emphasizes the risk of developing PACS and the severe, and possibly life-changing outcomes associated with it.
“Growing evidence on the risk and prevalence of PACS in adults and pediatric populations shows an elevated risk of autoimmune conditions, cardiovascular disease, neuropathology and other chronic, potentially disabling conditions following severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection, even after non-severe cases,” the assessment reads.
While Public Health Ontario said that the risk of severe infection appears to be lower than other variants, the rate of transmissibility means the absolute number of severe cases will increase. The risk of breakthrough infection or reinfection with BA.2 appears to be high.
The agency is warning that the hospital system could once again be overwhelmed as health care workers themselves fall ill and admissions rise. Using antivirals could help keep some high-risk individuals out of the hospital, so access to these treatments could be key to keeping hospitals functioning.
Public Health Ontario said that there is an increased likelihood of a rise in severe pediatric cases and ICU admissions, particularly as children under five years of age are unable to get vaccinated. This could also interrupt in-person learning, according to the agency.
“With expected increased infections among children associated with increased transmissibility of BA.2, removal of public health measures, and limited vaccine eligibility and two-dose coverage in children less than 12 years, the number of children with severe disease is likely to increase,” the assessment said.
While most of the risk assessment was grim, the agency shared a stark reminder that the pandemic is not over, and the risk of new variants coming along continues to increase.
“The evidence that a new SARS-CoV-2 VOC could emerge and drastically change the course of the pandemic continues to grow.”