Life must go on, but we have to live with the lessons we’ve learned to prevent a second wave of COVID-19. CNS photo/Lam Yik, Reuters

Cathy Majtenyi: Now is the best time to attack second wave

  • September 25, 2020

Canadians are collectively holding their breath as they brace for the so-called “second wave” of COVID-19. As infection numbers inch up, speculation is rife as to whether we’re entering this next phase and how we’re going to deal with another round of the virus.

Second wave is defined in medical terms as occurring when a disease infects a group of people, then subsides, then increases in a different part of the population.

But there is no objective measure for when a second wave takes place. Mike Tildesley, an expert in mathematical modelling of infectious diseases at the UK’s University of Warwick, told the BBC that a second wave definition is “not particularly scientific: how you define a wave is arbitrary.”

There would have to be a “substantial rise” in infections, says the BBC report, but what does this “rise” look like? What does “substantial” mean? What increase would there have to be before we know we’re in a second wave?

These are questions our health authorities should address.

It may or may not be scientifically possible to set a benchmark figure — total number of cases and/or percentage increase and/or the death rate, etc. — that would define the start of a second wave.

Nonetheless, having some kind of official guideline or policy that we can refer to when assessing the COVID-19 situation will help quell some of the anxiety and widely varied speculations.

This is not just an academic exercise. We knew that a move to Stage 3 in our re-opening would bring new infections, and indeed it has. New infections are inevitable until a vaccine is available or when COVID-19 has run its course.

Instead of recognizing this fact, and accepting that creating normalcy after months of lockdowns and restrictions will bring a number of new cases, media reports are generating anxiety, fear and guilt over the opening of schools and businesses and the resumption of social gatherings.

This is borne out by an Aug. 31 survey from the Canadian Mental Health Association, which found 84 per cent of Ontarians polled are concerned about the second wave, mostly because they think others are not following the proper protocols, while 79 per cent fear another lockdown in the province and 85 per cent fear a second wave “will put us back where we started.”

As if to give the voters what they want, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced on Sept. 14 that a second wave indeed appears to be on its way and that “we will take any further steps necessary, including future shutdowns.” Two days later he followed through with more restrictions in three regions experiencing a spike in cases.

Fear can easily lead to hair-trigger reactions that, while mitigating panic in the short-term, could lead to damage in the long run.

Unlike six months ago, we know much more now about the virus and what we need to do to prevent, or manage, a second wave. As the headline in a recent Globe and Mail article says: “Lessons learned will prove crucial in controlling a second wave of COVID-19.”

We need to re-direct the energy generated by fear and panic into actions that we learned from lived experience that’s been effective at cutting COVID-19 transmission: wearing masks, physical distancing, hand washing, contact tracing, staying home when feeling ill, quarantining after travelling.

To give Ford and other politicians their due, this is ultimately what they’re trying to achieve by issuing stark warnings to those who aren’t following safety measures. Unfortunately, the warnings and subsequent media reports also carry with it fear and panic to the wider population.

The measures that our public health officials have been urging us to follow work, as evidenced by research. A June 1 paper in the prestigious journal Lancet reviewed 172 studies from 16 countries across six continents and found that a minimum of one metre of physical distancing is “associated with a large reduction in infection” and that “wearing face masks protects people (both health-care workers and the general public) against infection by these coronaviruses.”

Another research team, using two mathematical models, showed that 80 per cent of a population wearing a mask would do more to cut transmission than a lockdown.

“Combined with other NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions) including social distancing and mass contact tracing, a ‘mouth-and-nose lockdown’ is far more sustainable than a ‘full body lockdown,’ from economic, social and mental health standpoints,” says the study.

Instead of living in fear and panic of a second wave, let us calmly, with trust and faith in God, continue abiding by public health measures and encourage others to do so as we recover from the devastation of the first wave. A second wave and subsequent lockdowns can be prevented if we act now.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research communications at an Ontario university.)

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