By: I. Toledo
Just like Denmark, France and the U.K., many Brazilian cities have recently started to alleviate restrictive measures against COVID-19. On March 17th, the state of São Paulo has just joined other Brazilian states, such as Rio de Janeiro and Santa Catarina, on making mask use optional in both open and closed environments, with the exception for buses, subways, trains, and health units such as hospitals and pharmacies, where mask use is still mandatory.
Although many are ecstatic with the news, recent updates on the pandemic situation show the decision may not have been the correct approach.
What was the reason for the lift?
COVID-19 protocols started to lift because studies on the dominant Omicron variant appeared to show that it is less severe than other variants of the coronavirus. Furthermore, health officials have noticed that the spread of the new variant has not led to a weighty increase in hospitalization and death rates in countries that have reached a high vaccination rate. This therefore persuaded government officials all around the world to start lifting their measures.
What experts say about it
Whilst health experts do agree that the virus’ decline is encouraging, many fear a potential viral resurgence, as well as worry over declining data availability. Most agree that the benefits to keeping these measures in place for a bit longer would be beneficial in preventing another resurgence.
"While we are in a much better place than we were a month ago, we still have to apply caution. Opening too quickly can lead to unnecessary increases in transmission that will only prolong the current surge and potentially accelerate the pace of a new variant," said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital
In addition, several countries that have dropped restrictions have seen consequential increases not only in cases, but also in hospitalization and deaths, although the link between cases and severe outcomes has decoupled.
However, others think that, even though the virus will continue to spread, vaccination has significantly helped prevent severe outcomes, and that has become many researchers’ focus. Masks are not necessarily vital to achieve that goal, and by making it optional, people can finally start feeling the return of normality, which many believe is worth the sacrifice.
Joël Mossong, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Luxembourg’s Health Directorate, supports lifting restrictions in his country. “We’ve seen some deaths, but nothing of the sort that we witnessed last winter, even last spring,” he says. “The argument for keeping up the restrictions has really gone, and I think we were we’re now in a phase where the strategy to remove restrictions is the right way to go.”
What should we do to prevent another resurgence?
It is vital to remember that, although it is a sign that the pandemic situation has finally improved, removing COVID-19 restrictions is not about returning to the normal before the pandemic, but about gradually and cautiously transitioning to a new normal. This means that, if necessary, we must be ready to reimpose measures to avoid going back to where we were last year.
Even though masks are not still necessary in closed spaces, it is important to invest on ventilation. This is because it can help reduce the concentration of airborne contaminants, including viruses, indoors.
Now that many have been vaccinated, the severity of the disease has indeed decreased, and many are not feeling symptoms when contaminated with the virus. Therefore, it is crucial that the population give sanitation an even stronger significance because you can never be sure that the people and surfaces around you are not carrying the disease, as even they can’t even be sure of it themselves. To keep safe, remember to continue washing hands thoroughly and using hand sanitizer, as well as prevent touching eyes or mouth with dirty fingers.
Still on the subject of asymptomatic cases, keep in mind that, even if most youngsters may not feel anything and think of the virus as nothing more than a weak cold, if COVID is passed on to an elder or someone else which is part of a high-risk group, there is a possibility that they will face severe health problems and, in some cases, even death. Thus it is important to keep avoiding agglomeration to prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus, especially if you are close to someone that might be worse off if in contact with the virus.