The tri-demic shouldn’t be taking us by surprise

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(Burn, baby burn) respirative inferno

With respiratory illness rates on the rise and supports at an all-time low, here’s what you need to know

It seems like there are fewer people in the halls. There are more and more empty seats in lectures. More people are walking around campus with masks on; some for preventative measures and some to contain their cough and runny nose. If you’ve noticed this too, or if you’ve gotten sick in the past month, you’re not alone. It’s because we’re in store for a nasty winter.

Get ready for the tri-demic. This winter will likely see widespread infections of three different viruses: influenza, COVID, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Since the pandemic began, flu and RSV have, for the most part, been conspicuously absent. Thanks to masking and social distancing mandates, many respiratory illnesses were infecting far fewer people than usual. This winter is already very, very different.

The 2020-2021 flu season was exceptional. With masking and social distancing mandates in effect, Canada overall had few cases of the flu. The flu’s positivity rate – the number of positive tests in a given day divided by the total number of tests administered that day – remained virtually zero. The same was true for the 2021-2022 flu season. However, the positivity rate saw a significant spike during the months of March to June of this year.

RSV is a respiratory illness that can impede a person’s ability to breathe. When the virus infects the trachea, bronchi, or lungs, it inflames and swells these areas, making breathing difficult. Like most respiratory illnesses, RSV is dangerous for infants, young children, and the elderly. RSV is especially dangerous for infants and young children since their trachea, bronchi, and lungs are still very small; any swelling and inflammation can cause serious breathing difficulty.

Like the flu, RSV cases were very low during the early stages of the COVID pandemic. During the 2020-2021 season, the positivity rate of RSV also remained virtually zero. RSV cases saw a spike in the 2021-2022 season, but these numbers were still significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels.

Data point after data point, graph after graph, the evidence continues to build: masking and social distancing work to prevent respiratory illnesses. The lack of mandates and general pandemic fatigue portends disaster this winter.

Already, the flu and RSV have returned with terrific rage. Both the flu and RSV have positivity rates greater than pre-pandemic levels. Since it’s still early in the cold and flu season, there is no sign that case numbers will peak any time soon. And even if they peak early, that still leaves room for a second wave later in the season.

In a press conference last Thursday, Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam strongly encouraged Canadians to begin masking again. Dr. Tam reminded Canadians of the role of masking: “If it’s added to the other layers of protection, including vaccination, then it might actually make a difference in terms of dampening the surge so that the hospitals can cope just a little bit better.”

It’s a shock to the system: positivity rates are already above pre-pandemic levels. Some Saskatchewan doctors are seeing overwhelming amounts of children coming to their clinics to receive treatment for the flu, RSV, and the common cold. Wait times are skyrocketing. Children’s medications to reduce pain and fever are in severe shortage. According to an article by Sharon Kirkey published on November 9 in the National Post, some Canadian parents are crossing the border to the US to buy Tylenol and Advil for their children due to sparse shelves in Canadian stores.

COVID cases are also, unsurprisingly, off to an alarming start this season. Higher infection rates of COVID also means the emergence of new variants. Epidemiologists predict variants of omicron will continue to rise. We may feel done with the pandemic, but the pandemic still isn’t finished with us.

Pandemic fatigue is making people much more careless about transmitting and contracting the various respiratory illnesses common during the winter months. Vaccination rates are waning as well. Over 80 per cent of Canadians have received at least one dose of vaccination against COVID. About half of Canadians have gotten one booster shot. These numbers nosedive for the second booster shot: only about 14 per cent of Canadians.

Now is the winter of our discontent. The outlook is dim. Thankfully, with a couple years of COVID behind us, we are better equipped now to deal with these tough months ahead. But not only in avoiding infection, we must also avoid the pessimism, anxiety, and depression that the pandemic is wont to cause.

Dr. Gordon Asmundson is a psychology professor at the U of R and has been studying the psychology of pandemics for years. No doubt, the past few years have been fertile times for his research. The pandemic has been disastrous for bodily health, but it has posed serious difficulty for mental health as well.

The pandemic has caused a new anxiety disorder, in fact. It’s called coronaphobia. Dr. Asmundson has contributed research to understanding this novel phenomenon. Coronaphobia, you may have guessed, is the debilitating fear of contracting COVID. In a 2020 article for the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Asmundson wrote that coronaphobia also has “connections to fear of adverse socio-economic consequences, xenophobia, traumatic stress symptoms, and checking and reassurance seeking.”

In some cases, people with coronaphobia develop maladaptive coping mechanisms as well: panic buying, excessive avoidance of public spaces, and increased substance abuse. Research on the effects of the pandemic has firmly established that COVID has intensified many psychological and behavioural problems, including depression, suicidal ideation, OCD, PTSD, substance abuse, and domestic abuse.

Try to avoid doom scrolling too much in the upcoming months. Wear your mask, keep your distance, and wash your hands. These are the best measures against infection, both physical and mental.

Thankfully, the tri-demic is unlikely to become a new normal. Flu and RSV infections have been predicted to return to pre-pandemic levels within one to two years. Nevertheless, the previous years of the pandemic have shown undeniably that meaningful public health measures like masking and social distancing can work to prevent respiratory illness. We do it for our own health, but we also do it for the safety of every other person we encounter through our days.

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