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Take modest precautions against the BA.5 variant now

A rapid antigen Covid-19 test

“The world has to learn to live with Covid-19” is now the mantra for the coronavirus.

But what happens if the coronavirus, or at least new sub-variants of Omicron, decide they don’t want to co-operate?

The BA.5 variant of Omicron, which is highly contagious and apparently able to ignore vaccines and the immunity drawn from previous cases of Covid-19, is spreading rapidly around the world.

Kim Wilson, the health minister, says that although Bermuda is waiting for confirmation from overseas laboratories, it is almost certain that it, along with sub-variant BA.4, is the dominant strain of coronavirus in Bermuda.

As a result, Bermuda has experienced a rise in cases, and more importantly, in hospital admissions.

Last week, 28 people were in the acute care wing of King Edward VII Memorial Hospital and one person died.

Since then, according to Ms Wilson, at least one more person has died and it seems very likely the number of people in hospital is higher. David Burt, the Premier, revealed that 56 people in Bermuda’s hospitals have Covid-19. This includes long-term care wards and Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute, so it is a different number than the admissions figures announced each week.

Ms Wilson said at least one third of the hospital’s acute care beds — 30 — are taken up with Covid-19 patients. Two long-term care wards are locked down because of Covid-19, meaning that long-term care patients who have recovered from Covid-19 and are now occupying acute care beds cannot move to those wards.

This has a knock-on effect throughout the hospital since it blocks beds for other ill patients and for people who may be having operations. All of this puts a heavy strain on the hospital, as does more than 80 staff either having Covid or being close contacts, meaning they cannot work. That is not yet a crippling number for an organisation that has 1,800 or so staff, but there were about 50 off work a week earlier — so the number has increased rapidly.

For now, the Government is not forecasting any changes, but it would be wise to start making contingency plans now, while hoping they will never need to be used.

It is not yet clear how serious the BA.5 sub-variant is. It is undoubtedly more contagious than previous variants, but despite the rise in hospital cases, its severity is still undetermined.

Measuring its impact is also more difficult, as testing has changed. With people departing Bermuda no longer having to take tests and with more in Bermuda taking at-home tests, case counts are a less reliable measure, which is why hospital cases and mortality matter more.

To that end, that acute care hospital cases rose from 12 to 28 in a week is concerning, as is people are continuing to die, albeit in numbers that are too low to make it easy to detect a trend.

This newspaper has said it before, and will no doubt say it again: if we have learnt anything from Covid-19, it is that it is unpredictable and it is always better to take action early rather than leave it until it is too late.

To that end, it is sensible, despite the increasingly high annoyance factor, to keep testing incoming travellers.

It is also wise to encourage masking, which for all of the sound and fury it generates in the community, is a simple and effective way of reducing, although not entirely preventing, the spread of Covid-19. So after several months of most people not having to carry a mask, let alone wear one, people should start getting used to the idea again.

Forcing people to return to the workplace, if it has not happened already, probably needs to be paused.

As Bermuda towards the most social weekend of the year, it would be wise for people, especially those who are most vulnerable, to see what they can do to reduce their exposure to large crowds.

Inevitably, some members of the public will complain and see this as being draconian, but this is where it is better to be safe than sorry.

Last summer, Bermuda saw a rapid surge in cases after the Cup Match holiday, which led to a disastrous and fatal autumn in which cases on the island soared into the thousands — and more than 60 people died!

It is too early to say whether the same thing will happen again, and Bermuda is better placed to deal with a surge now than it was then, especially because of the high vaccination rate. This should reduce symptoms, even if it is not a foolproof means of preventing infections.

In about six weeks, students will start returning to school. It is vital that teachers and students are back in the classrooms and are not subjected to more remote learning. That is not the kind of “learning to live with Covid-19” that anyone wants.

To that end, it is better for the community to take some modest steps now rather than be forced to take more severe ones later.

It has been a pleasure for most not to have to wear masks, to take part in public events and to travel to and from Bermuda. To avoid being forced to take harsher steps later, residents should take modest steps now to avoid the worst.