While vaccines offer hope in the fight against the coronavirus, experts argue that preventing a third wave of the pandemic needs to be an immediate priority.
A new report from the COVID Strategic Choices Group is advocating for what it’s calling “the Canadian Shield approach,” which it argues would save lives and result in improved economic outcomes when compared to existing measures.
“The present approach we’re taking, not surprisingly, is failing,” said Robert Greenhill, executive chair of the non-governmental, non-partisan organization Global Canada, which provides support for the interdisciplinary COVID Strategic Choices Group.
“If we don’t change, (it) is likely to lead to a third wave and a third set of lockdowns in late March or early April.”
The New Year has ushered in renewed concerns, with epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Labos telling Global News on Tuesday that Quebec is “running out of options” while two doctors in the Greater Toronto Area are suggesting Ontario should not reopen schools in the region next week.
Earlier this week, more than 360 scientists, occupational health specialists, engineers, doctors and nurses issued an open letter calling for more aggressive measures to stop airborne spread of COVID-19.
Based on the assumption that constraints currently in place will remain in effect through January before relaxing– similar to what occurred last spring and fall — the COVID Strategic Choices Group believes Canada could see a third wave begin this spring.
According to the report, the country could see daily case counts begin to fall later this month before starting to climb again, marking a third wave in late March or early April that could see daily national case counts surpass 9,000.
Currently, the single-day record is 8,445 new cases recorded Dec. 31. On Jan. 4, Canada added 7,908 new cases to its tally.
Vaccinations for the general population are not expected to start until April with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau previously stating that the “majority” of Canadians would be vaccinated by September, though the vaccine program has so far gotten off to a slow start.
It’s unclear exactly what percentage of the population will need to be vaccinated in order to reach widespread immunity. The assumption is 60 to 70 per cent, a threshold that will take the majority of the year to reach.
In the interim, other public health measures are needed to stem the spread of the virus.
Canada: one country, two approaches
Currently, Canadian provinces and territories are divided in their overall response to the pandemic.
Global Canada says Atlantic and Northern Canada have taken a “hammer and tap” approach while the rest of Canada is deploying a “hammer and dance” approach.
Both involve initial tough measures, i.e. the hammer, to get to a low level of community transmission before branching off to either “tap” by taking decisive action when new cases pop up, or “dance” by reacting only when cases get “too high.”
Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Atlantic and Northern Canada, dubbed TANZANC, are all democratic jurisdictions identified as implementing near-zero COVID policies and experiencing “much more” success in resisting a second wave of COVID, according to the COVID Strategic Choices Group.
The Canadian Shield approach
The so-called Canadian Shield approach would begin with an intense four-to-six week lockdown to “regain control over the virus.”
“In Manitoba, where they’re already well into a lockdown, it probably means maintaining what they’re already doing successfully for another couple of weeks,” said Greenhill.
“In places like Quebec and Ontario, where cases are still going up, there may need to be a significant tightening of restrictions in terms of activities by businesses, activities by individuals until the caseload comes down considerably.”
After the initial lockdown phase, the plan involves “a focused, sustained set of interventions” with a goal of keeping the effective reproductive rate of the virus below 0.85 to 0.90 until near-zero levels are reached, meaning less than one new daily case per million population.
The group argues that if this approach had been launched on Jan. 1, Canada would reach its goal by May 1.
“What we’re proposing is three things. First: as we’re in a lockdown, let’s do it right so it’s the last lockdown we ever have to go through,” Greenhill told Global News.
“The second step is: after we come out of a lockdown, let’s make sure we keep cases going down, because if they’re not going down, they’re going up, and that will lead inevitably to a third wave.”
The third step involves making sure individuals and businesses “most affected by these measures get the direct support they need.”
The idea is similar to, but less aggressive than, the so-called Melbourne Model which saw a sustained lockdown over a period of months in Melbourne, Australia until there was near-zero community transmission.
According to the report, a biostatistical analysis suggests that implementing either the Canadian Shield or Melbourne Model could save 5,000 lives by the end of April when compared to the current Continued Mitigation approach.
It also suggests economic outcomes under the Canadian Shield approach with an intense lockdown followed by a full reopening would be better than under Continued Mitigation with on-again-off-again lockdowns, or the Melbourne Model with a sustained lockdown.
Recognizing recovery ‘takes time’
A team of economists from Limestone Analytics and Queen’s University, led by economics professor and research director Christopher Cotton, assessed the three models and found that the Canadian Shield strategy would create an estimated $37-billion more in economic growth when compared to the current approach.
The increase climbs to $48-billion if there is a significant delay in vaccination programs, the report said.
“This was a bit of a surprise for us as we were digging into the numbers because it wasn’t intuitive, it wasn’t clear that this was going to happen,” said Cotton.
“But when you concentrate the economic lockdown upfront, it might be harsher in the beginning but it then allows us to fully recover and not face a third wave of lockdown restrictions before vaccines get more widely available.”
Cotton explained that the economic consequences of a lockdown extend beyond when the lockdown is lifted, for example through firms dealing with excess inventory afterward or having to recover from a series of layoffs.
“Recovery takes time. And if we have to recover multiple times over the course of the year, it’s going to be more economically costly than if we can just get it over with in the beginning.”
— With files from Global News’ Miranda Anthistle, Katie Dangerfield, Amanda Connolly, Kalina Laframboise, and Caryn Lieberman as well as The Canadian Press.