‘We are going to have to learn to live with the virus’: Dube says COVID-19 may linger longer than we thought

“Instead of looking for the date this is going to end, we're going to have to learn to live with the virus.”

Those were the words of Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé, who took to social media Friday to warn that eliminating COVID-19 in Quebec may be an unreachable goal if the virus continues to mutate.

He shared his thoughts in a lengthy post to his public Facebook page, which he titled “Vivre avec le virus,” or “Living with the virus.”

“We're going to have to accept a certain number of cases and a certain number of hospitalizations if we want to get back to a normal life,” he cautioned.

The province is currently gripped by the Delta variant, which represents an estimated 57 per cent of Quebec cases since Aug. 21.

And more variants are likely to emerge — variants which the minister says “will give us constant challenges in the months and maybe even years to come.”

The morning after he released his statement, Quebec reached a serious vaccination milestone: 80 per cent of eligible Quebecers have been fully vaccinated, granting widespread protection against hospitalization and death due to coronavirus.

The same day, however, the province reported 666 new infections, in line with the swell of infections forming the virus’s fourth wave.

On average, just under 600 people are reported COVID-19-positive every day in Quebec.

The minister's comments, backed by the persistent threat of the Delta variant, are reflective of a mounting consensus in the global scientific community: that achieving herd immunity from COVID-19 may be impossible.

IS COVID HERE TO STAY?

“The idea of herd immunity is basically this: if enough of us get vaccinated, we end up protecting not just ourselves, but also the small number of people who are unvaccinated. It’s almost as if we are a herd of animals, and we’re protecting the most vulnerable members of our society,” explains Dr. Christopher Labos, a Montreal cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology.

For many viruses, herd immunity requires a vaccination threshold of 70 to 80 per cent, he continues.

"The problem with COVID is that, as new variants develop [and] become more infectious, it means we need a higher and higher proportion of people vaccinated to get the same results."

In other words, if each new strain of COVID is more contagious than the last — as is the case with the Delta variant — Quebec will need to maintain an extremely high vaccination rate.

"From a practical point of view, that may end up being very difficult to achieve, especially if you have segments of the population that continue to resist vaccination," Dr. Labos continues.

But that doesn't mean that all hope is lost.

"The reality is, we don't know what the long-term outcome of the virus is going to be," says Dr. Labos. "SARS, which was a very deadly coronavirus, ended up disappearing after a while. MERS and other [viruses] have largely disappeared, although there are still pockets of infections in the Middle East here and there."

And even if COVID-19 sticks around, there are measures Quebec can take to mitigate its effects.

"The most important thing, frankly, is to continue to push the vaccination effort," says Dr. Labos, adding that vaccine passports and mandatory vaccinations for healthcare workers are also step in the right direction.

This sentiment was echoed by Dubé in his Facebook post. He said efforts will go towards strengthening Quebec's healthcare system in preparation for future outbreaks.

"Delivering a quality client experience will be the foundation of our changes to reduce the waiting list in surgery, alleviate emergencies, rely on home care and have accessible frontline services," he wrote.

"Our government is ambitious but realistic. To achieve these goals, we need more staff and teams that are stable."  

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