Canada is likely at the start of a Delta variant-driven fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal public health officials warned on Friday.
The news comes on the heels of an upward trend in cases across Canada which, if vaccine uptake doesn’t increase in younger groups, could eventually exceed health-care system capacity, the doctors said.
A long-range epidemic forecast “suggests we are at the start of the Delta-driven fourth wave,” chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters.
But, she added, “the trajectory will depend on ongoing increase in fully vaccinated coverage and the timing, pace and extent of reopening.”
The Delta variant is continuing to spread across Canada — and fast. Over the month of June alone, cases of the new COVID-19 variant increased five-fold nationwide, making it the dominant variant of concern in the country.
While Tam said the cases are expected to be concentrated “largely in younger unvaccinated people,” the disease will likely spread into “older, unvaccinated populations.”
“Both higher case volumes and older age of cases could ultimately increase severe illness and hospitalization rates,” Tam warned.
This forecast further highlights the importance of taking a cautious approach to relaxing public health measures, Tam said.
Alberta recently plunged headfirst into its reopening, dropping nearly all restrictions on July 1. Other provinces have also followed suit: Saskatchewan abandoned most of its COVID-19 restrictions on July 11, and New Brunswick is set to lift all of its restrictions this weekend.
“International experience with Delta driven waves underscores the need for gradual and cautious lifting of restrictions until fully vaccinated coverage is high across the population,” Tam said.
In the meantime, Tam said governments should keep watching closely for signs of resurgence as they continue pushing people to get their vaccines.
Canada has seen enthusiastic vaccine uptake, particularly among the older, at-risk groups. Over 89 per cent of seniors aged 70 years or older are now fully vaccinated, and 37 per cent to 46 per cent of teenagers and young adults have their second shot, Tam said.
First dose coverage is even higher, according to Tam. About 70 per cent of teenagers and young adults have their first dose, and 95 per cent of seniors have had their first jabs.
Despite the warning that Canada could be in the early days of the fourth wave, cases also remain low. Case counts across Canada are 93 per cent lower than they were in the peak of the third wave, Tam said, even with the recent uptick. The number of people experiencing severe and critical illness is also still trending downwards.
This is likely in large part to do the widespread vaccine uptake. Tam said the vaccines are proving to be “highly protective against severe illness.”
“The data show that 85 per cent of hospitalized COVID-19 cases were unvaccinated, with only 0.7 per cent of hospitalized cases occurring in fully vaccinated patients,” she said during the Friday press conference.
Fewer than 480 people have been treated daily in Canada’s hospitals, according to the most recent seven-day averages. On top of that, fewer than 225 of those individuals were being treated in intensive care units, and an average of just eight deaths have been reported daily.
However, the pandemic looks a little different among Canada’s unvaccinated population.
“The majority of cases, hospitalizations and fatal outcomes are occurring among unvaccinated people,” Tam said.
Compared to cases among those who have been fully vaccinated, unvaccinated Canadians are three times more likely to be hospitalized if they catch COVID-19. With the Delta variant ripping across the country, it’s more important than ever to try to get your jab, Tam said.
“We need more eligible people vaccinated,” she said.
Roughly 6.3 million Canadians still haven’t had a vaccine.