OTTAWA—New, more contagious variants of COVID-19 are threatening Canada’s progress against the deadly coronavirus, as health officials warned Friday that a dramatic spike to beyond 20,000 new infections a day before the end of March if health restrictions are lifted.
The striking projections published by Health Canada assumed the new variants already detected in all provinces are 50 per cent more contagious than the original form of the virus, which has already killed more than 20,000 people in this country.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said the modelling shows there will be a sharp resurgence in daily cases if health restrictions designed to slow the virus are lifted as new variants take root.
While Tam did not cite specific numbers, a graphic published by Health Canada showed cases could skyrocket from the current seven-day average of around 2,900 daily infections to more than 20,000 by the end of March if public health measures are lifted.
And even if public health measures stay the same, the graphic said they “will be insufficient” to prevent a sharp increase in new cases that could surge to almost 15,000 per day in the coming weeks.
So far, 660 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the United Kingdom have been detected in Canada, along with 39 cases of the B.1.351 variant detected in South Africa, and a single case of the P1 variant from Brazil.
“These variants have been smouldering in the background and now threaten to flare up,” Tam said, describing how they have been found in all 10 provinces and have taken root and are spreading through the community in five of them.
“We’ve been saying all along that 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,” she added.
“This is why measures must be stronger, stricter and sustained long enough to suppress rapid epidemic growth of variants of concern.”
Tam also presented the new modelling to premiers on their call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday evening, according to an account released by the Prime Minister’s Office. It said that Trudeau then “spoke about the critical importance that public health measures will play in the coming weeks to prevent a third wave of the virus.”
Trudeau also “stressed the importance of wide-scale rapid testing, contact tracing, quickly identifying and isolating new variant cases, and ensuring an effective rollout of vaccines,” the release said.
Speaking to reporters Friday morning, Trudeau said he has confidence in “the very difficult decisions” provinces are making, as Ontario and Quebec lift restrictions imposed to suppress the surge of cases in recent weeks that eclipsed the first outbreak last spring.
And while he cited progress as the overall number of cases, hospitalizations, deaths and long-term-care outbreaks have dropped since peaking in January, Trudeau warned the “variants are real” and could drive a “third wave that is even worse than the second and the first.”
“There is a very real concern about what the variants can do,” he said, pointing to rapid outbreaks of the new variants in a long-term-care home in Barrie, Ont. that killed 71 people, and in Newfoundland where the spread forced officials to postpone the provincial election.
“We need to make sure that, even as provinces look at loosening up certain restrictions, that other restrictions are kept in, and that there is an ability to both respond quickly when variants appear, and also an ability to use rapid-tests as a way of screening the population,” he added.
Top public health officials in Toronto and Peel Region — among the hardest-hit areas of Ontario — have also warned against relaxing measures designed to curb the spread of COVID-19 just as new variants of the coronavirus take root in their communities. Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, said this week that she has “never been as worried about the future as I am today,” noting an increase of infections from new COVID-19 variants of almost 70 per cent over the previous week.
De Villa and Toronto Mayor John Tory urged the provincial government, which lifted restrictions across several regions of Ontario, to keep them in place in Toronto until at least March 9.
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