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Canada’s chief science advisor warns coronavirus could still overwhelm health-care system

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WATCH: Canada’s chief science advisor Mona Nemer is warning Canadians that the novel coronavirus could get worse before it gets better, despite progress researchers have made toward finding a vaccine. When West Block host Mercedes Stephenson asked if there’s a chance hospitals might succumb to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, Nemer said certain areas of the country could be at risk of being overrun if the upward trend in positive test results continues.

Canada’s chief science advisor Mona Nemer is warning Canadians that the novel coronavirus could get worse before it gets better. This is despite progress researchers have made toward finding a vaccine.

Asked if there’s a chance hospitals might succumb to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, Nemer said certain areas of the country could be at risk of being overrun if the upward trend in positive test results continues.

Read more: Coronavirus cases are rising, but experts say testing doesn’t tell the full story

“Hospitals are, in certain regions, above 100 per cent capacity in emergency rooms already with the non-COVID cases,” she said.

“So there is a possibility that if we have to deal with huge cases of COVID-19 we will overwhelm the system and I would hate for this to happen in Canada.”

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Nemer, who provides scientific advice to the federal government to promote evidence-based decision-making, made the remarks in a wide-ranging interview with Global News about the status of the pandemic globally and Canada’s efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

She said researchers will likely know by the end of this year whether they have developed a usable vaccine. If they have, she said, it could be available to Canadians by early 2021.

Read more: Canada begins review of Oxford coronavirus vaccine candidate

“We have vaccines that are safe,” she said.

“What we’re still waiting to find out is whether vaccination is going to prevent infection or is going to prevent severe disease in infected individuals.”

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Nemer’s warning about risks to hospitals comes less than a week after local health officials in Ottawa said the city’s health-care system was “in crisis.”

“I am sounding the alarm. This is our warning bell,” said Ottawa’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches on Oct. 2 following the record-breaking announcement of 142 new COVID-19 cases in the city in a single day.

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Meanwhile, Nemer’s comments about vaccines echo statements made by Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand in early September, who said she expects a vaccine will likely be available sometime early next year.

Canada has signed deals with at least five major pharmaceutical companies to buy tens of millions of doses of vaccines once ready. All of these companies — Moderna, Pfizer, Novavax, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca — are in late-stage clinical trials of their vaccines, with some expecting to publish results on their effectiveness early this fall.

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In the meantime, however, Canadians must continue to follow public health guidelines, such as wearing masks, physical distancing and avoiding social gatherings, Nemer said.

“This is extremely important,” she said. “Otherwise, we will have no other choice but to be back in lockdown. Schools closed and a lot of hardship in terms of both health-wise and economically.”

Early days of the pandemic

Nemer’s job is to stay aware of the latest scientific research and to advise the government on how to make “science-based” policy decisions.

Her role throughout the pandemic has essentially been science coordinator-in-chief, working with the various expert panels set up by the government and then keeping politicians informed of their findings.

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In an article published by the National Observer on Oct. 6, Nemer said she thought early on in the pandemic that Canada might be spared the worst of the virus.

She has since told Global News this was because she and other scientists believed population density likely played a big role in how fast the virus was spreading — meaning since Canada is less densely populated than China, it was possible fewer people would get sick.

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This, of course, turned out to be untrue. Canada was not spared the worst of the virus and, relative to the total number of confirmed cases, has a death rate significantly higher than many other countries, including the United States.

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The military was also called in to support long-term care facilities in Ontario and Quebec that lacked the resources needed to prevent the virus from spreading. Thousands of residents died in these facilities, many of them without being able to see their family members one last time.

“There were a number of circumstances, if you want, that made us think that perhaps if we were able to limit the importation (of the virus) and the community spread, or prevent altogether the community spread, that we would be able to fare better than others,” she said. “But evidently not.”

Read more: Military teams raise concerns about conditions at Ontario care homes

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Nemer said what happened in long-term care homes was a huge loss and accounts for much of the difference between the fatality rate of the virus in Canada compared to other countries

“The tragedy really has been what’s happened with elder, long-term care homes and nursing homes,” she said.

Changing advice about masks

Politicians and public health officials in Canada were adamant early on in the pandemic that masks were not needed to slow the spread of the virus. But this advice gradually changed to say that masks — which were in short supply at the time — should be prioritized for health-care professionals and other essential workers.

Six months later and masks are mandated in most public spaces, in planes and airports, even in privately-owned apartment buildings.

Read more: Italy makes face masks mandatory outdoors as coronavirus cases climb

Nemer says this seemingly contradictory advice boils down to the fact that scientists didn’t know enough about how masks could help stop the spread of the virus early in the pandemic.

“The issue of masks is a difficult one because we didn’t have proper studies,” she said.

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At first, researchers believed the virus spread mostly through small droplets that stayed on surfaces. But this has since changed, Nemer said, with many scientists now believing the virus can be transmitted through “aerosols” — or airborne transmission.

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“This is precisely where masks are extremely important because you want to limit as much as possible the spread in the air,” Nemer said.

Misinformation about the virus

Another major concern, Nemer said, is misinformation about the virus, how it spreads and how serious a threat it is.

She stopped short of directly criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump, who, after testing positive for COVID-19, continued to downplay the virus by saying people should not be scared of it and by taking off his mask in public.

She did, however, say politicians have a responsibility to tell people the truth and to warn them about the risks they face.

“The reality is we have over a million people who have died of this virus. And I’m sure that many people know folks around them who have suffered from it,” she said.

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Nemer also said there are significant differences between the novel coronavirus and common illnesses like the flu. This includes potential long-term consequences, such as heart, lung and kidney damage, caused by COVID-19.

She added that researchers haven’t had enough time to fully understand what the effects of the virus will be on people of different ages and sexes.

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“We don’t have a way to predict who is going to be affected for short and long term and who’s not,” she said. “We don’t know who is going to be more susceptible.”

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There’s also been contradictory advice about testing, who should get tested, and when.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford had been encouraging everyone to get tested. Provincial health officials also established policies where anyone who was potentially exposed to the virus or who came into close contact with a person confirmed to be infected should get tested.

Read more: Ontario COVID-19 testing centres accepting people by appointment only starting Oct. 6

But this has since changed, especially as the province struggles to keep pace with the demand for testing following the reopening of schools, daycares and other businesses. Ontarians are now told they should only get a test if they are high risk or have symptoms.

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Nemer did not say if she believes the provinces have failed to ramp up testing levels adequately, nor did she say who was to blame for these perceived failings.

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She did, however, say that testing is critical to slowing down the spread of the virus and that new rapid tests — which are less accurate than traditional tests but much quicker at generating results — will likely increase the provinces’ capacity to determine who is and isn’t sick.

“What we lose in terms of sensitivity, we gain in terms of rapidity,” she said.

Nemer says Canada is ultimately well-positioned to get the virus under control so long as the provinces, territories and federal government continue to work together and Canadians continue to follow public health guidance.

It’s also important that people don’t give in to the temptation to return to normal too quickly, she said.

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“The second wave is going to look like what we make it look like,” she said. “So I really urge everyone to make those small sacrifices.”