Researchers whose projections for the spread of the novel coronavirus have proven grimly accurate for the United States say the number of deaths in Canada could surge dramatically late this year, unless measures change.
The latest model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington says Canada could see 16,214 deaths by Jan. 1. That number drops down to 12,053 fatalities if masks are universally worn by people across the country.
At least one expert has expressed doubt on the projections, however, saying they don’t take increased protections for vulnerable populations into account.
Since the coronavirus was first detected in Canada in January, 9,244 Canadians to date have died of complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Dr. Ali Mokdad, a member of the IHME’s senior management team and a professor of health metrics sciences, says the majority of the projected deaths will likely occur in December.
“That’s when the weather will get much colder and align with what we see during a pneumonia season,” he said.
“We’re seeing the same pattern over and over between COVID-19 and pneumonia in every country in the southern hemisphere, and now that’s heading in our direction.”
While coronavirus cases have been surging across Canada over the past week, with over 1,000 new cases being reported daily, deaths have stayed relatively flat for months. The country hasn’t reported over 20 daily deaths since July 3, and has seen fewer than 10 nearly every day in September.
But Mokdad says that could change if cases don’t start trending downward. He pointed to the U.S., where deaths began spiking over 1,000 a day roughly a month after cases surged this past summer.
“We saw this in other countries too: when you start opening schools and businesses, who’s more likely to go there? The younger generation,” he said.
“But they don’t live in a bubble. So they’ll start interacting with their parents and grandparents, and that’s when you’ll start to see a spike in mortality.”
According to the IHME’s modelling, the majority of new deaths in Canada will be seen in Ontario and Quebec, which Mokdad says is based on population size. Ontario could rise from over 2,800 deaths now to 5,773 by Jan. 1 if measures stay the same. Quebec, which has seen more than 5,800 fatalities to date, is projected to jump to 9,825.
The death tolls in British Columbia and Alberta, the other two provinces currently driving up the national case numbers, are projected to remain relatively flat through the winter, according to the modelling.
Stephen Hoption Cann, an infectious disease expert at the University of British Columbia, thinks the IHME’s model doesn’t reflect protections now in place for vulnerable people like the elderly, which could help limit any new deaths.
“We’re seeing more caution when it comes to long-term care residents, immune compromised people, where we’re limiting their interactions and keeping them protected,” he said.
That, coupled with the lower mortality rate among younger patients, makes Hoption Cann think the fall and winter could be less deadly than anticipated.
“So many people I talk to now who are in that older group, they simply don’t want to take the risk of opening themselves up to more interaction and the like,” he said. “So if that continues, we’ll be in a better place.”
What can bring the numbers down?
The IHME model has been considered a tentpole for data mappers during the pandemic and has been frequently cited by the White House Coronavirus Task Force. It has also largely aligned with projections from the country’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
After projecting earlier this year that the U.S. would surpass 200,000 deaths in September — which proved to be accurate — the model now estimates there could be up to 371,509 lives lost by Jan. 1.
Modelling released by the Public Health Agency of Canada on Tuesday only goes as far as early October, when it predicts Canada’s death toll will reach up to 9,300. However, it does suggest cases could see a major upswing through October into early November if measures aren’t tightened, potentially reaching up to 5,000 new cases daily.
While Hoption Cann says that upswing could lead to a surge in deaths a month later, he again said the majority of deaths projected by the IHME can be avoided.
“It all depends on what kind of further measures the provinces put in place to tamp down this rise in cases we’re seeing,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll see widespread business closures, but they’ll likely just ask people to kick what they’re already doing into a higher gear.”
Canada’s chief medical officer Dr. Theresa Tam said this week that the current surge can be countered if people “redouble their efforts with personal precautions.” In his address to the nation Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed that plea and said he’s confident Canadians can “bend the curve” together again.
Mokdad agreed, saying widespread mask-wearing could help control the spread of COVID-19.
“If 95 per cent of people in Canada wear a mask … you can avoid many of the cases and deaths that we are projecting,” he said.
“We can’t avoid new cases and deaths entirely, because we have schools and businesses open and the weather is getting colder. But masks can make a difference.”
Mokdad, who is watching the Canadian response to the pandemic from the U.S., says he admires the steps Ottawa has taken to help flatten the curve — particularly compared to the conflicting messages coming from Washington, D.C.
“(Canada) went by the book,” he said. “The lockdown early on, the testing, all was by the book. But the most important part that was done right was the cohesive national message given to the public.
“And Canadians have done a better job than Americans at following those messages.”
With 20 years of experience working at the CDC before joining the IHME, he says it’s “frustrating” to watch the institution struggle to deliver a clear message to Americans.
“We have taught other countries how to handle situations like this one,” he said. “So when you’re watching people all over the world dealing with the pandemic, and you know that you taught them how to do it, and they have done what you taught them — why the people here are not doing the same thing here, and not being allowed to in some ways, it’s very frustrating.
“I’m a very optimistic guy. If we get our act together (in the United States), if we are united but not divided and let science dictate policies, then we can do what you guys have done.”