September a ‘critical time’ for Canada’s COVID-19 fight, experts say

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September is a pivotal month for Canada’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, according to public health and infectious disease experts.

Students across the country are returning to school, fully vaccinated travellers from around the world are once again allowed to enter the country, and Canada’s political leaders are entering the final stages of the federal election campaign.

Those events are happening while Canada is in the midst of a Delta-variant-driven fourth wave of COVID-19 — and as Canadians begin to plan for fall and winter indoors.

“In the northern hemisphere … the seasons are changing and that’s where a lot of the (global) population is,” said Kerry Bowman, a University of Toronto bioethics professor.

“This could potentially increase the number of variants and emergence of variants, so it’s a very important time.”

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Provinces seeing spikes

For weeks, Canada has been seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, largely among the unvaccinated. On Thursday, the country reported 4,179 new cases and 27 deaths.

Alberta led the nation in new cases with 1,510 reported Thursday, followed by Ontario with 798, British Columbia with 774 and Quebec with 703.

Alberta continues to see the brunt of the fourth wave. Its health system is under increasing strain, with 679 Albertans in hospital as of Thursday and just over 150 of them being treated in the ICU.

As a result, Alberta has postponed all elective and many outpatient surgeries in Calgary to increase ICU capacity and redeploy staff to ICU and COVID-19 units.

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In July, Alberta was one of the first provinces to peel off significant layers of COVID-19 restrictions, like ending asymptomatic testing and no longer notifying close contacts of exposure.

Other provinces had also relaxed pandemic rules, but have had to backpedal in recent weeks. Take British Columbia, where Health Minister Adrian Dix announced Thursday that some hospitals are delaying non-urgent surgeries due to the spikes. The province had also scrapped a mask mandate, but had to reimpose it last month as cases began to climb rapidly.

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For Alberta’s rising cases, part of the problem there is their vaccination rate: just 70 per cent of eligible Albertans are fully vaccinated, the lowest vaccination rate in Canada.

On Friday, Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters at a news conference that 7.3 million Canadians have yet to get vaccinated – and getting through to them is key to taming COVID this fall and winter.

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So far, 85 per cent of eligible Canadians are partially vaccinated while 78 per cent are fully vaccinated.

“There are still far too many susceptible people and opportunities for the virus to spread,” Tam said. “From the community level up and across all eligible age groups, every vaccination counts.”

She added Canada is focusing on boosting vaccination rates among 18 to 39-year-olds in order to “slow epidemic growth enough to reduce the risk of exceeding health-care capacity through the winter.”

“Rapidly achieving these gains could also reduce the need for more disruptive measures that may be needed to control activities if and when health-care capacity is threatened,” Tam added.

What to watch for

One group that has yet to be vaccinated is children under 12. No vaccine has been approved for that age group, though trials are ongoing.

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With schools now open, it’s important to monitor how Delta spreads among kids this September, said Dr. Omar Khan, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto.

While Khan said most children will be asymptomatic, some might get sick.

“I think with the schools reopening … the chance of community transmission will go up because with in-person learning and all that stuff, that’s how it is,” he said.

“So we’ll continue to have a close look at that.”

Provinces have introduced measures to protect students and staff from COVID-19, including increased ventilation systems in Ontario and mask mandates in Quebec.

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As kids go back to school and vaccination uptake plateaus, Canadians must remain vigilant heading into the fall because COVID-19 “doesn’t get better on its own,” Khan added.

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Key indicators to watch this month include case numbers, hospitalization and ICU data, as well as vaccine coverage in different age groups, said Dr. Barry Pakes, a professor with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, in an email to Global News.

Also, look out for outbreaks in large gatherings, school extracurriculars and other events.

“September, with the restart of school, and children being the largest group of unvaccinated individuals, is a critical time,” he wrote. “The best way to protect children who cannot be vaccinated is ensuring everyone in their household is vaccinated and adhering to the measures in schools such as screening and masking, among others.”

Canada’s chance to become a global leader

For Bowman, September presents an opportunity for Canada to become a leader in global health.

He said while Canada has done well in controlling the pandemic in comparison to other nations, in order to truly defeat COVID-19, Canada needs to stick to and increase its commitments to fighting the pandemic around the world.

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“There’s a lack of national leadership on the entire pandemic; there’s no nation that’s showing global leadership … I do think this is the opportunity for Canada. If we are who we say we are, you know, concerned about justice nationally and globally, it would be the right thing to do,” he said.

Bowman added Canada needs to increase its vaccine shipments to COVAX – the global vaccine sharing program that supports low-income nations.

“Booster shots may well be required for immunocompromised people and a subset of people, (but) I think in the short term, we should not have widespread booster shots — meaning third doses — at all, for ethical reasons and epidemiological reasons,” he said.

“We really have to start making a deeper commitment to the larger world to protect ourselves and because it’s the right thing to do.”

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