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Opinion: Getting back to 'business as usual' doesn't mean COVID-19 risk is low

As we anticipate easing public health restrictions, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security.
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As we anticipate easing public health restrictions, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security.

I’ve heard from patients called back to workplaces where N95s are not mandated when many gather in confined spaces and break rooms do not limit the meeting of faces without masks.

When it looks like business as usual, and we’re allowed to gather, work out, dance, sing, drink and dine together, you might assume your risk is low. It isn’t.

Full vaccination and boosters definitely reduce your risk for hospitalization and death but you can still acquire a “mild” Covid infection and pass it on.

You would think that in our third year of the pandemic, we would know enough about staying safe.

The old rules of indoor masks, physical distancing, handwashing and vaccination are still helpful – but incomplete. They are based on the original belief that Covid is mainly spread through respiratory droplets.

We now know that the airborne spread of Covid poses a significant infection risk – but it isn’t common public knowledge. Unless you know about this, you won’t know what you’re walking into during the coming weeks.

At least when you enter a washroom, you can smell the airborne molecules proving a coworker just had a number two. You can see smoke in the air and with enough sunlight, dust before it settles.

But virus-laden airborne particles are invisible, odourless and a risk to you.

You need more knowledge to make informed choices.

Although Omicron is causing fewer hospitalizations and deaths compared to previous variants, it is not a benign infection. A so-called “mild” Covid infection that does not result in hospitalization is by no means mild and is far worse than your worst cold or a knock-out flu.

In this round of the pandemic, more of my patients are reporting extreme fatigue requiring excessive sleep, extremely dry and sore throats, head congestion, ear pain, severe continuous headaches, brain fog (similar to the symptoms of a concussion) and shortness of breath akin to feeling out of shape with mild exercise.

I’ve seen a variety of rashes suggestive of prickly heat, chilblains and hives.

These miserable symptoms are reflections of the whole-body inflammation caused by Omicron infections. We have yet to see the extent and prevalence of long Covid following this wave.

We are still seeing some fully vaccinated individuals hospitalized and dying. The elderly, immune compromised and those with chronic health conditions remain at risk.

Unlike any other time in the pandemic, there is no way of knowing the true prevalence of Covid in your community. With testing no longer available to most, there is no way to determine your personal risk.

Airborne (or aerosol) spread differs from simple respiratory droplet spread. Airborne particles are smaller than droplets and lighter than air. They remain suspended and float in the air for longer periods of time than simple droplets that drop to the ground.

Physical distancing of two metres (about 6 feet) reduces the risk for droplet but not airborne spread. Plexiglass barriers block droplet spread but may also block the good airflow needed to reduce aerosol spread between individuals in an enclosed space.

That clear barrier may prevent the cashier from getting infected by a customer but increase the risk of getting infected by a coworker. N95 masks are more effective at filtering out these smaller airborne particles. Good air filtration and airflow in all indoor spaces are essential to reduce Omicron spread as restrictions ease.

Because of the persistent risk of airborne spread with the unchecked high prevalence of Omicron, choose your exposure carefully, consider an N95 mask and limit your time indoors with questionable airflow.

With our attention on the pandemic, don’t take your total health for granted. We will all be personally touched by heart disease. Either you or a loved one will suffer a cardiac event. What do you need to know now?

As part of the Burnaby Division of Family Practice’s Empowering Patients public health education program, I’ll be giving a free online talk on What You Need to Know About Heart Disease at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 17.

I’ll share what you should know about heart failure, heart attacks, angina and atherosclerosis; how to tell if you are at risk for heart disease and what you can do to prevent it.

For more information or to sign up, please check https://divisionsbc.ca/burnaby/for-patients/empowering-patients

Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician. His Healthwise Column appears regularly in this paper. For more on achieving your positive potential in health, read his blog at davidicuswong.wordpress.com.