Canada's top doctor warns that easing restrictions while variants spread could lead to 'rapid growth' of COVID-19

Elisabetta Bianchini
·4 min read

New modelling data released by the Public Health Agency of Canada shows that although cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Canada are declining, COVID-19 variants are still causing significant concerns around a possible resurgence.

COVID-19 variants in Canada (Public Health Agency of Canada)
COVID-19 variants in Canada (Public Health Agency of Canada)

Over the past two months, COVID-19 variant cases have now been detected in all 10 province.

"Starting with a few travel-related cases in the early weeks, these variants have been smouldering in the background and now threaten to flare up," Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer said.

COVID-19 long-range forecasting with variants of concern (Public Health Agency of Canada)
COVID-19 long-range forecasting with variants of concern (Public Health Agency of Canada)

The Public Health Agency of Canada has now provided long-range forecasting that includes considerations around variants of concern, which could result in a strong resurgence of the virus, particularly if public health measures are lifted. Dr. Tam identified this as Canada's "current reality."

"With more contagious variants spreading, further lifting of the public health measures will cause the epidemic to resurge rapidly and strongly...and current community-based public health measures will be insufficient to control rapid growth and resurgence," Canada's chief medical officer of health said.

"If a combination of enhanced community based public health measures and good adherence to individual precautions are implemented and sustained, the epidemic is forecast to come under control.... If we ease measures too soon, the epidemic will resurge even stronger but with highly contagious variants in our midst, the threat of uncontrolled epidemic growth is significantly elevated."

In terms of questions around how provinces can and should lift any public health measures right now, Dr. Tam said officials should be avoiding a "yo-yoing effect" of adding and removing restrictions.

"You need to avoid complete lockdowns and curfews and all fo those tings by trying to maintain a strong level of public health measures," she said.

Dr. Tam added that if sequencing, testing and the ability to identify the context of each case are not well in place, "one shouldn't be easing those measures."

"You can't just keep doing the same things and expect a different result," she said.

Dr. Tam said that as jurisdiction get students back to school, jurisdictions should see what happens with that one additional change for three weeks before adding on the easing of measures. This is contradictory to what is happened in Ontario, where all students were brought back to school on Feb. 16 and as of the same date, a total of 30 public health regions moved out of the provincial stay-at-home order into various levels of restrictions.

Short-term COVID-19 forecast (Public Health Agency of Canada)
Short-term COVID-19 forecast (Public Health Agency of Canada)

The short-term forecast shows that Canada could see between 841,650 and 878,850 COVID-19 cases by Feb. 28, and between 21,510 and 22,420 COVID-19 deaths by the same date.

COVID-19 cases in Canada (Public Health Agency of Canada)
COVID-19 cases in Canada (Public Health Agency of Canada)

Daily COVID-19 case counts are steadily declining, but these numbers are still about 60 per cent higher than the peak of the first wave.

COVID-19 cases in all regions (Public Health Agency of Canada)
COVID-19 cases in all regions (Public Health Agency of Canada)

The number of health regions with more than 100 cases per 100,000 population has decreased, but Dr. Tam identified that the presence of new variants, like the B.1.1.7 variant in Newfoundland and Labrador, shows how quickly things can change when variants of concerns are introduced.

Impact of COVID-19 among Indigenous populations (Public Health Agency of Canada)
Impact of COVID-19 among Indigenous populations (Public Health Agency of Canada)

There continues to be particular concerns around COVID-19 spread among Indigenous populations, particular for First Nations on reserve who live in these more remote communities, with reduced access to health and critical services.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Canada (Public Health Agency of Canada)
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Canada (Public Health Agency of Canada)

Hospitalizations continue to decline in most provinces. The average stay for a COVID-19 patient is 16 days, or 20 days for individuals with more severe illness.

COVID-19 deaths in Canada (Public Health Agency of Canada)
COVID-19 deaths in Canada (Public Health Agency of Canada)

The average number of daily COVID-19 deaths has decreased by close to 58 per cent. Individuals 80 and over account for 70 per cent of deaths and C between the ages of 60 and 79 account for 26 per cent of deaths in Canada.