Infectious disease expert on returning to work in person, catching COVID more than once

With few public health restrictions in place and record numbers of people dying from COVID-19, navigating the pandemic can be difficult.

But infectious disease expert Dr. Lisa Barrett says Nova Scotians should continue to practice the lessons they’ve learned over the past two years.

This Mother’s Day, for example, Barrett recommends testing before visiting vulnerable friends and family. If you’re going to see someone older, visit them before heading to a larger gathering with multiple people, she says.

Barrett spoke with CBC Radio Information morning host Portia Clark on how people can navigate this phase of the pandemic and what might be on the horizon. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You can listen to the full interview here:

Information Morning – N.S.9:45Dr Lisa Barrett on navigating Wave 6 of the pandemic

Nova Scotia is trying to “get back to normal,” but we’re also seeing the highest rates of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths ever in the province. The contagious Dr. Lisa Barrett explains how to navigate this latest and most confusing phase of the pandemic. 9:45

In light of infections and deaths, do you think people still trust the messages coming from health officials?

It’s a good question, but I think we also need to make sure the messages are good for people to hear. Deaths are significant and not inevitable, as we showed at the start of the pandemic. If we take a look at publicly available data, 65% of our deaths for the entire pandemic have occurred since December. In the past three weeks, since we changed another important policy, [there have been] 51 deaths. That’s about 25% of our Omicron deaths that have happened in the past three weeks…so I think it’s important for people to know that this death rate is not insignificant. And as our cases will hopefully continue to decline, which is good, it’s important that people recognize that these policies and their behaviors actually made a difference early on.

Two hundred and two people have died since December 8 between the ages of 10 and 100, although the average age is 80. When you hear people say it’s unfortunate but not surprising, what do you think?

I don’t assume that as you get older you become the vulnerable group that we as a society are pretty sure will die of infectious diseases. It’s true that it will often be a cause of death as you get older, but it’s not inevitable and certainly not in a pandemic.

We can do more as we move forward. If we don’t have the policy part in place regarding public masking and capacity limits, then we can do things on a personal level that can help us protect our vulnerable people… Vaccination is the base, absolutely, but then we have to add other things. Don’t expect me to stop saying this at the end of May. For a while and until the fall, [we] we just need to structure things differently to protect our vulnerable people as we go out.

Right now, a lot of employers are asking their employees to return to the office. With COVID death rates at an all time high, how are you helping people understand that?

We know that for people in good medical health, vaccines are an excellent protective factor against hospitalization and death, and those rates are exceptionally high – for death, a 90% reduction in relative risk, so feel good about this part.

But also…it’s the people around you that you don’t know who are vulnerable. So, when you return to your workplaces, don’t do everything all the time. Do things in small groups, do hybrids for a while that combine in-person and virtual. Wear masks if you are going to be around people.

It’s important to remember that if people are sick, they need to have the resources to stay home. And as we move forward…and as the weather gets warmer, I hope people use better ventilation, either natural or added to your workplace. These are all great ways to start bringing people together a little safer.

Many of us have had COVID, including yourself, and we hear of people getting it twice, even three times. In most cases, does the severity of the disease decrease with each infection?

So your immune system is pretty amazing, but it also has a pretty big enemy in this virus right now because the virus is always trying different outfits, if you will, in terms of how bad it is and what it’s doing. Generally, there have been signals that people who are re-infected, who are vaccinated in the background… may get milder disease. But that’s not always the case, especially for high-risk people. So the answer is: we’re still fixing the problem… But don’t count on re-infection being the best. Your immune system is doing its best, but it will take a few years for the relationship between the virus and the immune system to stabilize, if you will.

And overall, is this virus dying out or should we prepare for another variant?

Globally, we try to really follow what’s going on and try to predict. It’s a very difficult time to predict, we have to do a lot of testing and what we call monitoring and tracking new variants. Am I sure we won’t? No. But as we move forward, the risk decreases. We just have to be very careful and aware that we are monitoring both people and animal reservoirs where this virus may be hiding, and making sure that we have put a lot of effort into it. And remember, we need to learn from this pandemic better than we have learned from others.

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