There are growing concerns that the spread of more contagious COVID-19 variants could spark a third wave of the coronavirus in Canada as provinces ease restrictions.
All 10 provinces have now reported at least one case of the variant first detected in the United Kingdom. Other “variants of concern” from South Africa and Brazil have also made their way into the country.
With a downward trend of daily cases, Canada is seemingly wrestling through the tail end of a second wave. But public health officials and infectious diseases experts are already raising the alarm bells on a third peak.
“The combination of that optimism from a successful lockdown leading to governments wanting to reopen and the background of these variants of concern emerging, plus, delays in the vaccine arrival is setting up really this perfect storm for a massive third wave,” said Dr. Brooks Fallis, a critical care physician in Toronto.
In the largest province of Ontario, 27 regions will begin a gradual reopening on Tuesday against the backdrop of stark scientific modelling that has predicted a third wave of infections and the potential of a third lockdown.
Modelling released on Feb. 11 showed that if public health measures are lifted, the variant first identified in the U.K., which will likely become the dominant version of the virus in the province, could lead to as many as 6,000 daily cases by the end of March.
Following a strict lockdown, Quebec reopened non-essential retail stores, personal-care salons and museums across the province last week. On Feb. 8, Alberta restaurants were also allowed to reopen for in-person dining. Meanwhile, since January, several provinces in Canada have resumed in-person learning at schools.
Jean-Paul Soucy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and PhD student at the University of Toronto, said based on the current trajectory of the variants and the decision-making by governments, the third wave could come in mid to late March and early April.
“We’re looking at two different epidemics almost at this point,” he said, adding that the exponential growth of the new variants is gradually replacing the old strain of COVID-19.
But, since vaccinations for the general population are not expected to start until April, it is less likely that the COVID-19 vaccines could prevent a third wave, Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist and physician at Toronto General Hospital, said.
“A third wave is a very reasonable possibility, but it is not inevitable,” he told Global News.
If a third wave does hit the country, however, it will be different than the second wave, according to Soucy and Bogoch.
They said vaccinations in long-term care homes will mean there will be fewer deaths there, but a larger percentage of fatalities among the older adults in the community.
“Hopefully the devastation of long-term care facilities will be avoided because, at that point, everyone who lives and works in long-term care will have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations,” said Bogoch.
Can a third wave be averted?
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged the public to refrain from unnecessary travel and gatherings as the long weekend approached, noting a fast-tracked shipment of millions of COVID-19 vaccines in coming months will not be enough to combat the variants that have overtaken other countries.
“Nobody wants a third wave to start, particularly not one comprised of new, more communicable variants that can cause real challenges,” Trudeau said during a news conference from outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa.
Also on Friday, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said aggressive vaccinations will play a key part in addressing COVID-19 spread but that is just one suppression tool. She added that ongoing vigilance was vital.
“Look at the European countries — they give us a clue as to what might happen if variants are circulating, and we let our guard down. That massive acceleration into that third resurgence, if you like … will happen really fast.”
In a bid to curb the spread of new variants, Ontario has introduced an “emergency brake” system to allow for immediate action if a public health unit region experiences rapid acceleration in COVID-19 transmission or if its health care system risks becoming overwhelmed.
Soucy said the reopening of less essential facilities like restaurants for indoor dining and gyms should be delayed until the spring and summertime “when we get to control transmission.”
Bogoch echoed that thought, saying it will be important not to reopen too quickly, have policies in place to act swiftly and “stay ahead of the virus.”
“Variants of concern or no variants of concern — we still know how to prevent infection,” he said.
“If we navigate the next few months until vaccination is more widespread, we can certainly avoid a third wave.”
— With files from the Global News’ Heather Yourex-West, the Canadian Press.View link »