December 10, 2023

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How to celebrate Halloween safely this year with COVID-19 and other viruses lurking

Despite the spread of new immune-evasive Omicron strains, Quebec’s Ministry of Health says there is no reason to impose public health restrictions because the vast majority of people are vaccinated or immunized from having caught COVID-19.

But that doesn’t mean everyone should throw caution to the wind when gathering for Halloween parties this weekend, said ministry spokesperson Marie-Claude Lacasse in an email.

“So that everyone can enjoy the party, it is always a good idea to remember the precautionary measures that should be applied at all times,”  she said, noting there is more than just COVID-19 to worry about.

Gastroenteritis, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are also circulating, she said.

“If you are sick, you stay home and do a rapid test to find out if you have COVID-19. If you have COVID-19, you isolate yourself for a period of five days and limit non-essential activities for the following five days.”

The ministry would prefer to see people gathering outside or in well-ventilated spaces, Lacasse said.

At indoor parties, opening a window could help improve ventilation, she said. This is along with the usual recommendations about handwashing and coughing or sneezing into the elbow.

Superspreader events likely, doctor says

New Omicron subvariants that have been shown to better evade immunity and potentially drive new COVID waves are gaining ground, with more than 300 Omicron subvariants being tracked by the World Health Organization.

Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious diseases specialist from the McGill University Health Centre, said new subvariants are in Quebec, but there’s no accurate tally of how far they have spread at this point.

People who are not properly vaccinated are more likely to catch these new subvariants, he explained, and it’s currently the younger population that is falling behind on booster shots.

Dr. Donald Vinh is an infectious diseases specialist, medical microbiologist and a research clinician scientist at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal. (Submitted by Sandra Sciangula)

Halloween parties will likely create superspreader events, and from there, COVID-19 will transmit to family, friends and co-workers, Vinh said.

“When you have these superspreader events, a good proportion of people will have no serious disease from that infection,” Vinh said.

“But that’s the first wave of that superspreader event. Then they lead to subsequent waves, where there is outward transmission to at-risk groups.”

Health network already under strain

Vinh sees first-hand what’s happening in hospitals that are practically bursting at the seams with patients. He said patients who should be treated in intensive care units are instead receiving care in hallways.

“We have emergency rooms everywhere that are overflowing,” Vinh said. “There is an impact on an overburdened health-care system.”

However, enacting public health restrictions at this point isn’t likely to encourage adherence and could even push some people further away from the cause, he said.

In an ideal world, people would include a face mask in their Halloween costume if they are gathering inside or they should gather outside, Vinh said. The hope is that people will make an effort, even if it’s as simple as opening that window, to help limit the impact on the health network, he said.

If people are unwilling to minimize their social activities or take other precautions, RSV, the flu and COVID-19 will propagate, said Vinh. 

“Some people may come out of it unscathed, but others may require medical care,” he said. 

“Even if you come out of it unscathed, if there’s such a burden on the health-care system because so many people require medical care, then it comes back to bother everybody. Not just the people who are sick.”