As COVID-19 cases appear to be rising, a key question remains: could new restrictions be reinstated at York University?
On Sept. 29, York made a YFile post and sent an email announcement on Oct. 2, listing a series of health recommendations.
While not mandates or restrictions, these recommendations include: staying up to date with vaccinations, wearing level three or N95 masks, staying at home when sick, and practicing good hand hygiene. Both posts highlight how the shift to indoor activities may lead to an increase in exposure and infection.
Current data suggests an increase in cases, prompting concerns among some experts about the current response to the virus, especially in post-secondary institutions.
According to Public Health Ontario, case numbers have been increasing since hitting a low point in early July 2023. Between Aug. 6 and 12, there were only 4.7 cases per 100,000 individuals. From Oct. 1 to 7, that number reached 19.8 cases per 100,000.
The current cases per 100,000 differs from a similar time range in 2022. Last year, from Oct. 2 to Oct. 8, the cases per 100,000 was 59.9. Although, as CP24 reports, the current numbers are underestimated, as only a portion of the population applies for PCR or rapid testing.
Jane Heffernan, an expert in disease modelling, mathematical epidemiology and immunology at York, says the general increase in case numbers stems from a waning immunity from previous infection and vaccination. Heffernan also cites the general relaxed behaviour toward COVID-19 and increased contact between people as other contributing factors.
In the wake of this information, announcements have been occurring across the country. On Sept. 12, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer (CPHO) said, “In the last few weeks, we have started to see an increase in COVID-19 indicators across the country, including in hospitals. The omicron variant continues to evolve.” In Dr. Tam’s announcement, she also recommended remasking and booster updates. Some Ontario hospitals are reinstating masks for the fall.
Maxwell Smith, an assistant professor at Western University whose research focuses on public health ethics, sees the rising case numbers as a cause for concern.
“With very few mitigation measures in place, people will suffer and die. This is largely preventable, but we choose not to use the tools in our toolbox to prevent these outcomes. We should never be complacent about virulent pathogens that will infect thousands and cause serious harm in some when reasonable measures can be implemented to prevent suffering and death,” says Smith.
Heffernan says the modelling predicts waves of infection occurring during fall 2023 and winter 2024. Other infectious diseases such as influenza, the common cold, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are circulating alongside COVID-19.
When asked about the potential future implementation of mask mandates or other restrictions at Ontario’s post-secondary institutions, Smith thinks the possibility is there. He argues that many post-secondary institutions do not actively promote strong measures or recommendations that reduce the risks to students, staff, and their communities.
“There’s a sense in which decision-makers are wary of talking about measures to prevent illness because they fear people are tired of hearing about them or don’t want to use them. I get that. But the alternative is preventable illness, absenteeism from school and work, and ultimately for some, severe disease and death. It’s a choice,” explains Smith.
He adds, “Like with condoms, seat belts, and other health and safety measures, decision-makers shouldn’t shy away from discussing and potentially implementing such measures just because some people would prefer not to use them.”
As for students at York, some feel that the current situation at York is better than previous years. Jiya Shah, a third-year student in financial and business economics who lived in residence during the pandemic, notes how the campus is livelier.
When reflecting on York’s past and current handling of the virus, Shah concludes, “I think they could be more mindful about certain things and still have stands with masks and COVID tests. Other than that, I think York has handled everything very well.”
With the recent recommendations in mind, the York community will have to see if a greater COVID-19 resurgence may prompt new guidelines in the coming months.