Duclos spoke in a pandemic update alongside Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, who said the worst of this wave appears to be over.
“Canada is past the peak of the Omicron wave,” Tam said, in a press conference that saw officials offering more information on a decline in cases across the country after roughly 20 to 25 per cent of the country became infected by the Omicron variant.
“The worst is behind us,” Duclos added.
Officials also emphasized that the highly infectious nature of Omicron means border controls have a limited impact because cases are already transmitting in Canadian communities.
But they said it remains important to be aware that any changes may have to be reassessed in the event of future variants, and that the coronavirus will likely continue evolving.
“Unfortunately, there may be more surprises,” said Duclos.
The rapid spread of Omicron across the country began in late November 2021 and saw cases surge to record highs, sparking the imposition of tougher lockdowns in a bid to slow the spread. Tensions have flared as Canadians struggle with pandemic exhaustion and frustration, and a number of provinces have begun lifting restrictions over recent weeks.
Those provinces, including Alberta and Saskatchewan, say the moves are fuelled by a desire to learn to live with COVID-19.
Alberta ended its vaccine certificate system earlier in the week, as the number of people hospitalized with the virus continued to decrease slightly.
In Saskatchewan, Premier Scott Moe announced Tuesday that the province will end its proof of vaccination requirements and has suggested private businesses who want to keep checking vaccination statuses of customers should seek legal advice before making a final decision.
In Quebec, COVID-19 hospitalizations also continue to drop.
On Thursday, 36 new deaths attributed to the health crisis were reported.
As of Saturday in Quebec, there are no legal limits on private gatherings in homes despite the province’s public health officials recommending no more than 10 people gather inside.
“We’re going to have to learn to live with the virus,” Quebec Premier François Legault said.
Quebec, along with Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, has laid out plans to lift other pandemic measures over the course of the next month or so.
“Different provinces are taking decisions that they feel are appropriate to them on vaccine mandates and restrictions in their jurisdictions,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday afternoon.
While the federal government is expected to announce changes to Canada’s border posture next week, removing the requirement to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 vaccine to board a plane or train isn’t being considered, according to Trudeau.
“All the decisions will be based in science,” he said.
What will Omicron mean for 'herd immunity'?
Although ‘herd immunity’ has often been discussed by experts over the course of the pandemic, Tam said the question facing scientists is whether such a thing actually exists with COVID-19.
“There may not be such a thing as ‘herd immunity,'” Tam said, and emphasized the importance of Canadians continuing to get vaccinated and boosted to prevent severe outcomes.
“We don’t know where the virus is going to evolve. That’s the other thing that changes the vaccination goalposts.”
With mandates beginning to lift, some experts have begun to question the continued merits of these public health decisions, as well as the role of politics in them.
In Ontario, where a provincial election is set for June, officials said Wednesday that the province is “not in the clear” to remove the COVID-19 vaccine certification system as of yet.
“We still need to be very careful,” Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said.
The next day, the province’s top doctor, Dr. Kieran Moore, indicated a timeline to lift all COVID-19 restrictions would be coming soon.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford added on Friday that he will wait for recommendations from the provincial chief medical officer before making any changes to COVID-19 mandates.
“I base it on health. I base it on science. We’ll continue to work with Dr. Moore to reopen safely and cautiously,” Ford said Friday while announcing a state of emergency in his province.
Moore said Ontario will be advised as early as next week on a plan to lift measures.
COVID-19 rapid antigen tests are now also being distributed for free across Ontario at select retailers including Costco, Shoppers Drug Mart, Loblaws, Metro, Food Basics, Rexall, Sobeys, Real Canadian Superstore, Longo’s, Walmart and more. Each household will be limited to one box of five tests per visit.
Removing restrictions is premature at this point, according to Dr. Noel Gibney, professor emeritus in the department of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta.
“If we look back at some of the previous waves, the government used hospitalization numbers of 400 or 500 to make decisions about what public health measures would be added or removed,” Gibney explained on Wednesday in an interview with Global News.
“We’re actually significantly above those numbers now, and our system remains under profound pressure.”