After nearly a month of decline, COVID-19 infections around the world have started to creep up again. New cases have shot up by eight per cent globally compared to the previous week, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, experts are not sure Canada will see another wave even with loosened public health measures.
“WHO looks at global numbers,” infectious disease specialist Dr. Gerald Evans told Global News in an interview Wednesday. “So, they’re going to be skewed by places like China, where numbers have increased.”
The increase of COVID cases around the world is caused by a combination of factors, including the highly transmissible Omicron variant and its cousin the BA.2 sub-variant, and the lifting of public health and social measures, according to the WHO.
“Western Europe is probably a better area for us to look at when we think to ourselves what could happen to us this spring,” said Evans. “They’re a little bit ahead of what we’ve been doing here in Canada … because of those two factors: a more transmissible variant and a reduction in public health measures.”
He explained that the BA.2 sub-variant is more transmissible and is more common in western Canada where public health restrictions have been lifted. There could be an increase in cases in Canada as seen in Europe following their reduction of public health measures.
“Is that going to be a wave? That’s the part that’s a little more difficult to be certain about. It has a lot to do with whether Canadians will completely abandon all the public health measures,” Evans said.
The increase in COVID-19 cases has led to lockdowns in Asia. China’s Jilin province is battling to contain an outbreak.
Canada’s daily COVID-19 cases have fallen since the record-setting fifth wave fuelled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, but have plateaued at a level higher than seen before in the two-year-long pandemic.
As of March 16, the seven-day average of daily lab-confirmed cases sits a little above 5,800, much lower than the record high of over 45,000 daily cases set on Jan. 7.
Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam and her provincial counterparts have said those confirmed cases are likely an undercount of the true number of cases, which could be up to 10 times higher. Many parts of the country no longer provide laboratory tests for most people after capacity was overwhelmed by the spread of Omicron.
The number of Canadians seeking treatment in hospital for COVID-19 also sat at 3,915 on Wednesday, about a third of the record 10,800 patients seen in January. The number includes about 459 people who are being treated for COVID-19 in intensive care units.
The country is currently seeing an average of 52 deaths per day, down from the near-record average seen late last month, which was over 100.
Could Canada see another lockdown?
Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases physician with Trillium Health Partners, said he’s been hearing a lot of experts say increased case numbers are because of loosened restrictions, but that’s only part of the equation, he says.
“We should remember that in temperate climates, you occasionally see a small bump in respiratory infections near the end of the winter. We certainly saw that (during) multiple years of influenza,” said Chakrabarti.
He also said the rise of cases doesn’t necessarily mean that Canadians will need to go back into lockdown or keep the mask mandate.
“I think the important thing for us to remember is that whereas previously mask-wearing was the only tool that we had … two years later, we have in Canada at least greater than 90 per cent of people protected by vaccines. And most importantly, if you look at the highest-risk adults over the age of 60, (the vaccination rate is) over 95 percent, so it’s a very different situation,” Chakrabarti explained.
“If you’re going to have a bit of a bump, you want that to happen as far away from the start of winter as possible. In the springtime … the impact on the health system is going to be much less,” said Chakrabarti. “We have to remember that what we are trying to do at this point is prevent hospitalization.”
Evans, on the other hand, said he believes that Canada should keep the mask mandate and capacity limits as other parts of the world report a rise in COVID-19 cases.
“I think it’s just been rushed a little bit too quickly … If we’re not quick to reduce restrictions … we could probably keep that BA.2 wave down a little bit,” said Evans.
“But it’s that unfortunate mixture of trying to get rid of those public health measures at the same time this sub-lineage pops up … that’s a that’s going to be really tough,” he added.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said on Thursday that after two years of following individual public health measures, “people in Canada know what to do to keep themselves and each other safe.”
“As I’ve mentioned in the past, we are in a much better position today than in 2020,” said Duclos.
He said that high vaccination rates and public health measures have pushed Canada through the peak of the Omicron wave.
“We have more tools, like widely available rapid tests, and a range of new treatments that can help keep some patients from getting seriously ill,” said Duclos. “I think it’s fair to say that we are now entering into a transition phase of this pandemic.”
As the weather warms up and people spend more time outside, Duclos said he expects to see transmission decline in the coming months, but Canadians have to be prepared for a “waning of collective and individual immunity.”
“Of course, the Government of Canada will also keep monitoring for new variants through our robust surveillance system, and adjust public measures as necessary,” he added.
What China's lockdown means for Canada?
Evans and Chakrabarti stressed that the situation in China and the way it deals with outbreaks is very different than in Canada and other countries. So, just because parts of China have gone to lockdown doesn’t mean that other places will too, and it shouldn’t cause people to be anxious.
“China has what it’s called a COVID zero sort of policy, and that (means imposing) very stringent widespread lockdowns whenever they see a rise in cases,” said Evans.
“The result of that is that it’s left a lot of their population without ever having had COVID, which is a good thing until you get into an era like Omicron, where Omicron is so highly transmissible.”
He also said that in China, older people have lower vaccination rates compared to younger people — quite the opposite from Canada and in parts of the western world.
“I think right now China is having their Omicron wave, which is similar to what we saw here in Canada in December. It’s a very different situation there,” said Chakrabarti.