By Wednesday, regions that have been green-lit by health officials in four provinces in Canada will have reopened their economies — despite an increasing number of cases of novel coronavirus variants emerging throughout the country.
Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia reopened certain parts of their provinces on Monday, and Ontario is set to join them on Wednesday. Manitoba will follow suit with loosened restrictions on Friday.
But is it safe? Experts say it’s a tough call.
Canadian chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam urged provinces and territories against reopening too quickly on Tuesday. In terms of public health measures, Tam emphasized that “this is not the moment to release everything.”
“The population immunity level is not high. We’re just beginning our vaccine programs. We’ve done many weeks of work of bringing down this epidemic curve. The hospitalizations and deaths are beginning to come down,” she said.
“You can only ease things when you have the proper measures in place to rapidly detect and be able to reimplement public health measures if needed.”
Little information is known on exactly how transmissible the new variants are, Tam said. Even if the vaccines have an impact on herd immunity, Tam said a bigger portion of the population may need to be vaccinated in order for that to be achieved.
As infectious diseases physician Dr. Isaac Bogoch notes: “You’ve got to proceed with caution.”
“This has to be done at the right time and at the right place. There are variants of concern that are spreading in Canada and they could cause problems,” he said in a previous interview with Global News.
“If you start to see things turn around, we know how this can get out of hand really quickly. There’s no excuse to have another lockdown.”
The variants were first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. Scientists are working to better understand the new strains, which are more transmissible, and tweak vaccines to protect against them.
Bogoch said the best way to protect against the virus would be to “vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate” as many people as possible. But country-wide shortages of the Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna vaccines could pose a problem.
“All the provincial vaccine task forces have hopefully been using their time wisely and setting up plans and getting their infrastructure and organization in place such that when the vaccines do arrive, they can be distributed quickly,” he said.
“We don’t want to have any sitting in the freezer. We want these at arms as quickly as possible.”
Across the country, cases of COVID-19 are on the decline. Quebec and Ontario, the two provinces hit hardest by the pandemic, are reporting decreases not seen since before the holiday season.
In Quebec, the number of COVID-19 cases dropped to 853 on Monday — the lowest it had been in weeks. The number represents a stark contrast to early January, where the province was steadily recording more than 2,500 cases per day.
The number of infections reported in Ontario is on a consistent downward trend. The province’s seven-day average has now reached 1,317 cases per day, down from Sunday’s 1,428, which was down from last week’s 1,889.
However, cases of known COVID-19 variants are on the rise. Cases of the South African, U.K. and Brazil variants have been found in Canada.
At least 227 cases of the U.K. variant have been reported throughout Ontario since Monday, along with three cases of the variant first identified in South Africa. Toronto reported the country’s first case of the Brazil variant on Sunday.
On Jan. 29, provincial health authorities released a six-point-plan designed to stop the spread of variants, which included mandatory on-arrival testing of international travellers, enhanced screening and sequencing to identify the new variants, and tougher public health measures.
“We can’t return to normal, not yet,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters on Monday. “But we can transition out of the province-wide shut-down.”
As of Feb. 8, restaurants and non-essential businesses will be open with varying restrictions in place aimed at preventing the further spread of COVID-19 variants. If any region in Ontario experiences a “rapid acceleration” in COVID-19 transmission, or if the health-care system becomes overwhelmed, Ford said a new “emergency brake” system will be implemented.
Any region that undergoes an emergency brake will be immediately moved into a grey lockdown zone, which means a return to stay-at-home orders, closures and tighter restrictions.
“Let me be clear, if we see the numbers spike again, we’re prepared to take further action as necessary because nothing is more important than protecting our people right now,” Ford said.
But Dr. Samir Sinha, head of geriatrics at Mount Sinai and University Health Network hospitals in Toronto, told Global News that harder-hit parts of the province like Toronto and Peel regions don’t have the contact tracing capacity to be able to quickly identify clusters and bring case numbers back under control.
“This is not the time for us to start letting up and reopening too quickly, especially when we have all three types of COVID variants now that we’re concerned about, present in Canada and being detected in the community, even in cases where they’re not related to recent travel,” he said.
While the Ford government’s emergency brake may sound great in theory, Sinha said that inconsistently closing down retail stores and schools in certain regions while leaving others open for business can send conflicting messages to members of the public, who may just be encouraged to travel over to a region facing softer restrictions.
“When we don’t actually have all that infrastructure in place, when you start loosening things up quickly and without those measures in place, it really means that case counts will just continue to climb and there will be more community transmission,” he said.
“We’ll be back to where we were in the fall, where we’re looking once again down the barrel of a lockdown.”
In Alberta, COVID-19 case numbers are also down — but reported cases of the variant are up.
Out of 269 new cases of the virus reported on Monday, the province’s chief medical officer of health said 25 of those were identified as new strains. In total, the province has seen 103 cases of the new variants, 96 of which have been identified as the U.K. strain and seven of which have been identified as the South African variant.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw urged vigilance.
“It’s not inevitable that the variant strain would become the dominant strain,” she said. “It really depends on all of us and continuing to work together to prevent the spread.”
But when it comes to the new variants, Jean-Paul Soucy, an epidemiological PhD student studying at the University of Toronto, said “it seems like a pretty big gamble to me.”
According to Soucy, schools should be among the first to reopen and the last to close. But opening too much too soon could undo months of progress fairly quickly.
“We have to recognize that the old level of control, the old measures will not be as effective at reducing transmission of the new variant compared to the old variant,” he said.
“Whether we can do that at the same time as reopening businesses more widely, reopening, for example, restaurants for indoor dining, where people are going to be unmasked with a more transmissible variant going around, (and) gyms where people are going to be breathing heavily with this more transmissible variant going around — it makes me really nervous.”