Canada is experiencing “a bit of turbulence” when it comes to COVID-19 case counts, Canada’s chief public health officer said Friday.
“There may be bumps in our trajectory over the coming weeks, with further easing of public health measures, and spending more time indoors during the cooler weather,” Dr. Theresa Tam said at a press conference.
Despite this, experts say Canada is probably not headed for a winter as grim as last year’s, even if people and governments still need to take precautions to make sure things don’t get worse.
Daily cases in Canada increased 11 per cent over the past week, Tam said on Friday, and they will probably continue to rise.
“With the highly contagious Delta variant continuing to predominate, the risk for surges and disease activity is likely to increase with more time spent indoors, particularly where there are low pockets of vaccine coverage,” she said.
“Currently, severe illness trends are stable but we need to keep infection rates down to prevent increases.”
Canada is a little ahead of where it was last year already, in terms of case numbers. On Nov. 10, 2020, 4,302 new cases of COVID-19 were reported across Canada, according to data from PHAC. This year, on the same date, only 2,601 cases were reported, though they are trending upwards.
“What’s concerning a lot of us is what’s going to happen in the next few weeks,” said Dr. Don Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre. “The numbers have either plateaued or even started to rise, for example, in Ontario and Quebec.”
How much they continue to rise is up to individuals choosing to get vaccinated, and government responses, he said.
Vaccination and avoiding lockdown
The biggest difference this year compared to last is the vaccination drive. The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was approved in early December 2020, and the first shots were given to long-term care residents and health-care workers on Dec. 14, marking the beginning of the vaccine rollout.
Now, about 74 per cent of Canadians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I think it will make a major difference,” Vinh said, and should help make future waves of COVID-19 “softer.”
That doesn’t mean Canadians can relax though, Vinh warned.
“If we’re starting to see an increase in cases, it may suggest that we have to be a little bit more prudent. We have to reconsider policies,” he said. “We may have to defer some of these relaxation decisions because the numbers do speak for themselves.”
Dr. Saverio Stranges, chair of the department of epidemiology at Western University, said he always looks to Europe for clues on where the pandemic is headed.
The case numbers there aren’t great lately: Germany, France, Belgium and Poland, among others, are experiencing huge upticks in infections. Experts in the Netherlands are calling for a partial lockdown, according to The Guardian, and Austria recently decided to impose a lockdown on its unvaccinated population.
“We are about a month behind what happens in Europe,” Stranges said.
Countries that transitioned rapidly from lockdowns to having very few restrictions are the ones seeing increased case numbers, he added.
However, Stranges is hopeful rising case numbers won’t put too much pressure on hospitals.
“I’m confident, optimistic, the increasing number of cases will not necessarily translate into an increased number of hospitalizations, or even deaths, if we keep pushing on the vaccination campaigns,” he said.
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Vinh is less certain.
Having indoor activities and relaxing health measures like masking, “allows for the perfect storm to fester over the next few weeks, and like a boiling pot it will overflow, and it will only overflow in one direction. And that would be into the health care system,” he said.
But, Vinh added, by keeping health measures strong, we can avoid overwhelming the health system and emergency lockdowns.
“There is no absolute urgency in having all these relaxation measures occurring at the time that respiratory viruses are increasing in the community.”
One thing that would help is when Health Canada approves vaccines for kids ages five to 11, Vinh said.
“I think it will make a massive dent in community transmission because what we know currently is that children ages five to 11 or so account for about 20 per cent of total daily cases,” he said, noting that children can also pass the virus along to others.
Children are unlikely to be fully vaccinated before Christmas, Vinh thinks, given the timelines involved.
Stranges expects that families will still be able to have a more normal holiday season this year than last.
“I’m confident that in Canada, where vaccination rates are high, people will enjoy a Christmas nearly back to normal, certainly in a more normal scenario compared to last year,” he said.
To get there though, Vinh cautions the provinces need to be sure not to reopen too fast.
“We will probably not be able to do very much to protect ourselves by the Christmas holiday season using vaccinations,” he said. “We will have to still rely, I think, on public health measures like masking and distancing.”
“There’s always cause for optimism,” Vinh added, but not “naïve” optimism.
“I think that among countries worldwide, we’re happily nowhere in the lead of anything that’s going bad,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we become complacent.”