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Sensible steps to reduce the spread of Covid-19

A rapid antigen Covid-19 test.

The Government has been criticised, with good reason, for its recent handling of the surge in the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The breakdown of the testing system and the delays in reopening schools were all predictable; while no one expects perfection in these uncertain times, the Government’s failure to take early action to slow the spread of the Omicron variant was short-sighted — and the community paid the price.

Despite that, there are early indications that the Omicron curve is starting to flatten. This is reason for very cautious optimism. How the Government and health authorities adapt to changing circumstances is critical.

As of now, there are almost 2,000 active Covid-19 cases — a record. In addition, there are 13 people in hospital; two in critical condition.

It is important to state that the symptoms of the Omicron variant have been less severe than the Delta variant. But the concern now is that the requirement to isolate for people who have tested positive for Covid-19, or have been in contact with someone who has, risks bringing the community to a halt.

On that basis, the Government’s decision to allow people who have been vaccinated and have received a booster shot not to isolate, provided they do not test positive after taking an antigen test, is sensible — as is the decision to allow children who are 12 or older to get booster shots.

These decisions should ease life for people and allow them to work, while also reducing the strain on the health service. Certainly, relying on self-testing requires a degree of trust, but it is reasonable to think that most people will act in their self-interest and in those of the wider community.

Even though the symptoms of the Omicron variant appear to be less severe than its predecessors and the volume of hospital admissions is lower, at least thus far, that does not mean that vulnerable groups — especially the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions and people with reduced immunity — are less at risk. This is why those who may have tested positive for Covid-19 should isolate – as, even if they are likely to fully recover, if they transmit the coronavirus to someone else, that person may end up in hospital or worse.

At the same time, some common sense must prevail. There are early signs that the Omicron variant is levelling off. While more than 200 people a day are still testing positive, recoveries are close to the same number, so the rate of increase in active infections has slowed.

And as noted, the number of hospital cases continues to be much lower than it was for Delta. It is wise to be cautious with these numbers — serious symptoms may take time to show and the mere fact that almost 2,000 people have the coronavirus means hospital cases may rise even if the rate of serious symptoms is lower.

Despite those cautions, it is also important to enable people to pursue lives that are as close to normal as possible. Again, the Government should be credited with allowing antigen tests for public schools. While this lagged well behind the private schools for reasons that are completely unclear, that the change has been made is welcome.

There are those in the community who would like to create a myth that people who promote tougher restrictions or want to ensure precautions are taken for school-age people have some kind of nefarious wish to prevent children from being educated, to create as much inconvenience for parents as possible and to grind the economy to a halt.

That this is nonsense should be a given. All of the evidence suggests that acting early results in avoiding harsher restrictions later. No one in their right mind thinks that because students can learn remotely that this is preferable to in-class teaching.

But the reality is that roughly 15 per cent of those who have tested positive for Covid-19 are aged up to 19. The risk is that they could give it to each other or to their parents or grandparents if they do not isolate, and that schools by their nature could see mass infections.

So some restrictions are necessary and sensible. But the risk of mass closures can be reduced significantly if precautions such as antigen testing are used, followed by PCR tests for positive cases.

At the same time, it is critical that the same measures that have been put to good effect through the pandemic are followed.

Bermuda residents have been outstanding in their willingness to wear masks, to carry out hand hygiene and to reduce physical contact. As time goes on, some of these habits may become harder to keep up, but it is vital that they should be. The alternative is to unnecessarily see the spread of the coronavirus further, necessitating tougher restrictions that no one wants.

For now, the world and Bermuda remain in a pandemic. Hopes that vaccines would eliminate the pandemic have been tempered, but there remains strong evidence that vaccines, especially with the booster, remain the single most effective way of reducing the spread of the virus and certainly of reducing its severity and the likelihood of death. That does not mean that vaccinated and boostered people will not get Covid-19 or pass it on. It means the risk is reduced — and that is a positive.

Therefore, the Government needs to push harder on boosters, which have been increasing but only slowly, while encouraging the non-vaccinated to begin the process as well.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that there are no certainties in how to handle it. But the evidence shows that sensible social distancing, testing using antigen tests in the first instance and continuing to vaccinate remains Bermuda’s best course towards restoring some normality in life.