Canadian health officials are sounding the alarm over highly transmissible new COVID-19 variants, warning that the pandemic could “resurge rapidly” if public health measures are lifted further.
New national public health modelling, released Friday, acknowledges the progress Canada has made in bringing down overall infections and hospitalizations, but emphasizes the imminent threat the arrival of virus variants bring to that progress.
“With the emergence and spread of new variants of concern… unless we maintain and abide by stringent public health measures, we may not be able to avert a rapid resurgence of the epidemic in Canada,” said Theresa Tam, Canada’s top doctor, at a virtual press conference Friday.
Variants have become an increasing concern in Canada and around the world in recent months.
Canada has so far logged 700 cases with “Variants Of Concern” (VOC), predominately the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in Great Britain. All 10 provinces have reported cases, and five of those have evidence of community spread.
The virus is essentially modifying or mutating, becoming new versions of itself. Some of those versions, like the B.1.1.7 variant, are believed to be more contagious, meaning they’re more likely to spread, and quickly.
Scientists worry the B.1.1.7 variant could soon become the dominant version in the world. Recent modelling out of Quebec and Ontario suggests the variant could dominate in a matter of weeks.
Tam said it could very well become the main circulating virus in Canada and that a third wave is possible unless restrictions are maintained.
Even with current restrictions, the spread of the variants could push Canada’s caseload to more than 10,000 new diagnoses per day by April, according to the projections.
“We’ve been saying all along — if we lift these (measures) too soon, the epidemic will resurge even stronger. With highly contagious variants in our midst, the threat of epidemic growth is significantly elevated,” Tam said.
“This is why measures need to be stronger, stricter and sustained long enough to suppress.”
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Provinces are on track to do the opposite.
Ontario lifted its stay-at-home order for much of the province this week and reopened schools. In Alberta and Manitoba, gyms and restaurants have reopened with limited capacity. By contrast, B.C. and Saskatchewan have opted to extend their public health measures.
Should provinces choose to loosen restrictions, it must be done cautiously, thoughtfully, and with widespread public adherence, “or else you’re going to see a resurgence,” Tam said.
If provinces see indications of a resurgence, the response needs to be just as rapid, she said.
“Why would you ease your measures? Only if you have the sequencing in place, you have your testing at a good level, you know when you find a case you can contact their contacts. If those things are not well in place, one should not be easing those measures,” she said.
“You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.”
Signs of progress
New signs of progress are being threatened by virus variants, the modeling shows.
Daily coronavirus infections have been falling in Canada for about a month now, and continue to.
Across Canada, COVID-19 has now killed 21,498 people out of 837,497 total infections. According to federal data, fewer than 33,000 people are currently infected.
“That’s almost 60 per cent fewer than a month ago,” Tam said of the infections.
The current national average of daily cases sits around 2,900. But that is still “60 per cent higher than the peak of the first wave,” Tam noted.
Most provinces, including some of the hardest-hit, like Ontario and Quebec, have reported drops in hospitalizations in recent weeks, which experts consider a key indicator of the current severity of the pandemic.
The progress has relieved some of the strain on the health care system, Tam said, though backlogs in the health care system remain an acute issue in many parts of the country.
Deaths related to COVID-19 also continue to decline across Canada. On average, the country is reporting 59 deaths daily. It’s decreased, on average, by close to 58 per cent, Tam said.
But variants continue to cast a shadow on Canada’s tentatively positive trajectory.
In the new modelling, Public Health Agency of Canada experts use a colour-coded graph to predict how strong a response is needed to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the long term.
It hinges on the number of contacts Canadians have each day.
The chart below illustrates what could happen when you mix in a variant that’s easier to catch and easier to spread.
The line on the chart Canada follows will rest on how cautious and proactive we are, Tam said.
“This is a potential scenario we absolutely have to be aware of.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was confident in the decisions made by provinces.
In a recent call with premiers, Trudeau said they discussed ways to catch outbreaks quickly and re-introduce restriction measures if necessary. They agreed that scaling up the use of rapid tests would be a key part of balancing reopened economies and virus variants.
“This is a new phase we’re entering,” he said.
“The provinces are taking this very seriously. They’re very aware of the dangers of the variants and they continue to seek a balance.”
Vaccines not a safety net
Though Canada has begun to receive more and more COVID-19 vaccines, the shots should not be relied on to keep the pandemic at bay, Tam warned.
Thanks to an accelerated import schedule and additional orders, hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses from both Moderna and Pfizer are set to funnel into the country over the next few weeks.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has maintained that four million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will arrive by end of March, as promised, while 10.8 million doses will be delivered between April and June, and all remaining doses — 40 million in total — will arrive by the end of September.
The control of variants can be done without a complete vaccination campaign, Tam said.
She used Israel as an example.
The country also experienced a large surge in cases in December when public health measures were loosened. Although vaccinations also began around that time, “strengthened and sustained public health measures have been necessary to suppress rapid growth as vaccine coverage increases,” she said.
As variants increased, Israel enhanced border measures, and continued testing, sequencing and tracing to slow the spread.
“They still had to put in the public health measures to slow down the virus while their vaccine program is escalated,” Tam said.
“We are still in a period where the supply of vaccines is just escalating. So for the next months, we’re not going to have a lot of people vaccinated. That’s a fact.”
— with files from the Canadian Press