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Act now to prevent the spread of Omicron

Booster shots need to be a priority for Bermuda to combat the Omicron variant. (AP Foto/Nam Y. Huh)

Once again, Bermuda is facing a potential spike in Covid-19 cases. It is critical that, almost two years into the pandemic, the lessons learnt are applied intelligently and fairly.

One of the major lessons is to stick rigorously to the facts and to acknowledge what is not known. Many assumptions about Covid-19 have been upended in the past two years so there is no room for hubris.

What Bermuda knows right now is that there are at least two clusters of the Omicron variant and at least ten cases have been transmitted locally. Therefore Omicron is here. Whatever border protections Bermuda has have been pierced. It is not possible to say how widely they have been breached but the health authorities have to work on the assumption that Omicron is in the community and will spread.

That does not mean border protections should be eased; far from it. If anything, there is a case to be made for making border restrictions tougher.

If Bermuda knows that Omicron is in the community, then it needs to respond based on the nature of the variant. It is clear – and Bermuda’s own infection rate amply illustrates this – that it is vastly more virulent than the Delta variant, which in turn was more infectious than the original Covid-19.

There does seem to be a fair amount of evidence that the symptoms of Omicron are less severe than Delta. That is good news. But less severe does not mean the Delta variant is benign. The risk remains that even if the symptoms of Omicron are half as severe as Delta, its virulence could mean that twice as many people will contract it, thus putting health services, including the hospital, under severe pressure, along with other essential services.

Less than a year ago, it was expected that the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines would contain Covid-19. The Delta variant proved that this was optimistic, although there should be no doubt that the vaccines proved vital in slowing its spread and mitigating its effects.

Now Omicron appears to be resistant to the vaccine where a person has received two injections and the resistance of so-called natural immunity for people who have already contracted Covid is also reduced. In this sense, Omicron is more like a variety of influenza. Just because you have had flu before does not mean you will not get it again. The same seems to be true for Omicron.

However, the vaccine booster, especially Pfizer, which Bermuda is fortunate to have, does appear to offer a high level of protection and seems to be the best weapon Bermuda has to defend itself from Omicron.

But at the time of writing, only 28 per cent of the population has had the booster. Even among those who have had two injections – which finally reached 70 per cent of the population only weeks ago – more than half have not yet had the booster, meaning Bermuda is ill-equipped to contain Omicron.

Kim Wilson, the health minister, meets her Cabinet colleagues today to discuss potential changes to social-distancing rules. As of last week, no additional restrictions were made.

In addition, the booster clinics are due to offer injections this week and then to close until the new year. As of a few weeks ago, the Government’s plan seemed to be to keep the booster clinics closed and to turn over future vaccine deliveries to medical practices and private clinics. However, Ms Wilson hinted on Friday that the government clinics might now reopen.

Bermuda instead needs to immediately accelerate the booster programme. A rough calculation of people who are eligible for the booster but have not yet had it suggests there are 25,000 in this category. The Government should make it a priority to get 1,000 people a week a booster. This would not prevent the onset of Omicron, but it would slow down its spread in a matter of weeks.

Instead, the Government proposes to close the clinics for Christmas week to give staff a rest. This fails to recognise that Bermuda is facing a crisis that if allowed to run unchecked, could rival Delta.

The Government has announced that in future, SafeKeys will only be reauthorised if people who have received two injections and are eligible for a booster have had one. Because the vast majority of those who had two injections are now eligible, this makes some sense, but only if the boosters are easily accessed, which they clearly are not.

Second, the Government needs to move quickly to restrict the spread of Omicron by encouraging social-distancing. The greatest risk remains the likelihood that Omicron will be spread through large gatherings involving people from different households and social groups.

This could occur in bars and restaurants but experience shows that private gatherings and events such as funerals are just as dangerous. What is fortuitous is that schools closed on Friday, but camps could also pose a risk.

So the Government should look at restricting the size of social gatherings as a matter of urgency and should also restrict the issuance of large group waivers. This will not be popular but experience has shown repeatedly that acting early is the most effective means of containing the spread of the virus. Waiting and hoping for the best has been an abject failure wherever it has been tried.

The Government will also need to consider whether schools should reopen in January if the spread of Omicron is still accelerating. Even with rapid antigen testing, the schools are likely to cause the spread of the virus; even before the end of term, some schools were moving to remote learning.

Again, this will be unpopular. But the need to contain Omicron must be taken seriously. the public should be unforgiving if Bermuda finds itself grappling with another spike similar to the wave of Delta cases, which caused thousands of infections and killed 68 people. The time is now to save lives.

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Published December 20, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated December 19, 2021 at 5:41 pm)

Act now to prevent the spread of Omicron

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