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Provinces that acted faster had more success limiting spread of COVID-19, data shows – CBC.ca

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As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit many parts of the country, provinces that were quick to act with strict containment measures have been more successful in limiting the spread, a CBC News analysis has found.

Using data from Oxford University that tracks provincial government responses to the contagion, we see within Canada a trend that has been observed in other countries: when authorities are slower to respond to a rise in new cases, it becomes more difficult to bring the spread under control.

“It’s not just about the public health measures. It’s also the timing of implementation of those measures. The timing is one of the most crucial factors,” said Saverio Stranges, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Western University in London, Ont.

The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker evaluates governments based on several measures, including containment policies (travel restrictions, school closures), health policies (mask usage, testing programs), and economic policies (wage subsidies, debt relief).

After nearly 10 months of pandemic and two waves of infection, the data tells a clear story. Provinces that remained vigilant, particularly those in Atlantic Canada, avoided major outbreaks, while some that dropped their guards have struggled to contain surging case rates.

The ‘false self-confidence’ of the Prairies

Take, for example, the approaches and outcomes of Alberta and Manitoba, both of which have been hit by strong second waves of COVID-19. 

The animation below compares the provinces’ COVID-19 containment measures with their weekly case rates since September. Alberta waited to impose strict measures as its cases rose, spiking to the highest per-capita case rate in Canada so far. 

Manitoba, on the other hand, was quicker to react, and its COVID-19 case numbers plateaued sooner.

A note about Nunavut: because of its small population (less than 40,000 people), even small numbers of new COVID-19 cases appear as dramatic spikes when compared to other provinces.

“Alberta and Manitoba didn’t struggle in the first wave so much, and that set them up with a little bit of false self-confidence that they had it well in hand with very limited measures,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. 

“They should have been terrified about what happened in Quebec during the first wave. That’s what the Atlantic provinces did. They looked at it and they said, ‘Good God, we could be just like that.'”

Epidemiologist Colin Furness says provinces with low case counts in the beginning of the pandemic should have been looking at hard-hit Ontario and Quebec and preparing accordingly. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

In July, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Newfoundland and Labrador created a bubble around the region that restricted travel from outside provinces. Those who lived within the Atlantic bubble could travel relatively freely, but outsiders were screened when entering and had to quarantine for 14 days. The agreement was suspended in late November as COVID-19 cases increased in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The Atlantic bubble’s success was part luck

Experts interviewed by CBC News cautioned that there are significant limitations to making any direct comparisons between provinces, partly because there can be vast differences between factors such as health systems and population traits.

For example, outbreaks were more common in more populated areas, so provinces with smaller population centres had an easier task, Furness said.

“It’s not a level playing field,” he said.

Although COVID-19 can spread in rural areas, it needs a superspreader event to really take off, he said.

The chart below shows how strict provinces were in terms of a few select containment measures, according to the Oxford data. The darker the orange, the stricter the rule. Click here for a complete description of each measure.

And there are other differences between provinces that make direct comparisons tricky, Stranges said, including mobility, geography, access to public health facilities, demographics, and the standards within long-term care facilities.

Tighter measures in 1st wave despite higher numbers in 2nd

The Oxford data also reveals a curious pattern: across all provinces, measures to control the spread of COVID-19 were more stringent in the first wave, even if case loads were lower. 

Because it was a new coronavirus whose severity was not fully understood, it made sense to slam the breaks, Furness said.

“In Ontario, we were fining people for sitting by themselves on park benches in March. That’s ludicrous,” he said. “We didn’t know much about how it spreads. We knew that it was potentially massively deadly and we were frightened. What was driving the restrictive measures in March was an abundance of caution.”

But, as the pandemic wore on, provinces also needed to deal with a frustrated public and increasing pressures from the economic sector, Stranges said.

“So, you need to also compromise what is acceptable, because we know that people get tired, especially in our Western societies where people care about their individual freedoms,” he said.

Some provinces tried targeted approaches as cases cropped up in certain settings. Manitoba, for example, restricted travel to vulnerable northern communities for periods in April and September, and barred visitors from care homes in March. But the window for using such approaches effectively can close pretty quickly, said Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research in Winnipeg, a firm that provides COVID-19 planning services.

“The problem is, with a highly interconnected and interactive society, those targeted approaches became less and less effective as community spread continued,” she said.

Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr says targeted measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 lack effectiveness once there’s widespread community transmission of the illness. (John Einarson/CBC)

Malgorzata Gasperowicz, a developmental biologist and general associate in the faculty of nursing at the University of Calgary, described provincial preparations for the second wave as “flirting with the virus,” as some regions across Canada slowly implemented measures piece by piece instead of using the swift lockdown approach seen in response to the first wave.

Ontario, for example, started with targeted restrictions in certain cities at the beginning of October. But the case numbers continued to grow, and by Oct. 25, the province reported more than 1,000 new cases in a single day.

The government then introduced a new rating system and corresponding set of restrictions for municipalities. Toronto and Peel Region were placed in the lockdown stage on Nov. 23. They were eventually joined by York Region, Windsor-Essex and Hamilton, but cases continued to climb. The Ontario government eventually announced a provincewide lockdown starting on Dec. 26.

Gasperowicz said another factor that contributed to the severity of the second wave in many parts of the country was how quickly some governments lifted restrictions when the numbers started to improve following the first wave.

“The lifting of restrictions is really an essential thing, and it’s why we are in a second wave,” she said, citing the success of the Atlantic bubble and similar efforts in Australia, where restrictions remained in place until daily case counts were down to zero and community transmission was eliminated.

“We know that Atlantic Canada did the best job. Their most stringent measures weren’t lifted before they reached zero new daily cases.… Everybody else opened too early, and then you started to grow again. Slowly, but the growth was everywhere.”

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Canada adds 206 new COVID-19 deaths while officials consider mandatory hotel quarantine – Global News

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Another 5,957 cases of COVID-19 were reported by Canada on Friday as government officials considered a mandatory hotel quarantine for all incoming travelers.

The announcement comes amid news of at least one passenger aboard one of the 153 flights that arrived in the country over the last weeks testing positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Read more:
Coronavirus tracker: how many new cases of COVID-19 in Canada today?

Current health protocols require people flying into the country to present a negative COVID-19 test conducted within 72 hours of boarding a plane bound for Canada as well as a mandatory two-week quarantine on arrival, but the government is still considering further options to make it harder to return from trips abroad in light of the pandemic.

News of Canada considering further restrictions on incoming travelers comes as the country’s top doctor warned that easing the country’s virus restrictions could rapidly cause new case of the virus to increase again.

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“Every day we are one step closer and better times are ahead. But there is no fast track. We must stick with public health measures and individual practices that we know are effective for controlling spread. Unless and until infection rates are low enough to allow public health authorities to test, trace and isolate effectively, easing of restrictions risks even stronger resurgence,” said Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam in a statement Friday.


Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Dr. Bonnie outlines B.C.’s mass immunization plan'



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Coronavirus: Dr. Bonnie outlines B.C.’s mass immunization plan


Coronavirus: Dr. Bonnie outlines B.C.’s mass immunization plan

“This is why we must all continue to do our part to slow the spread: that means postponing vacation travel to a better time in the future.”

[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]

Canada’s total COVID-19 caseload now stands at 737,407 following the release of Friday’s case data. Another 206 deaths linked to the virus were also announced on Friday, with Canada’s COVID-19 death toll now standing at 18,828.

At least 651,000 patients have since recovered from COVID-19 however, while more than 21,041,000 tests have been administered to date. A total of 769,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have also been administered across the country so far.

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Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Tam reports 31 cases of U.K. variant, 3 cases of South Africa variant of COVID-19 in Canada'



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Coronavirus: Tam reports 31 cases of U.K. variant, 3 cases of South Africa variant of COVID-19 in Canada


Coronavirus: Tam reports 31 cases of U.K. variant, 3 cases of South Africa variant of COVID-19 in Canada

Ontario reported another 2,662 cases of COVID-19 Friday, as well as another 87 deaths. While daily case numbers in the province have decreased slightly in comparison to last week, Ontario is still on track to surpass Quebec as the province with the highest number of confirmed cases this weekend.

Quebec, which has been under a province-wide curfew for almost two weeks, reported another 1,631 infections and 88 deaths on Friday.

B.C. added another 508 cases on Friday, as well as another nine deaths linked to the virus. The coastal province’s total caseload now stands at 63,484, of which 565 are considered “epi-linked” — patients who were in close proximity to confirmed infections and display symptoms, but were never formally tested.

Read more:
Couple faces charges after flying to Yukon and receiving coronavirus vaccine

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Alberta announced another 643 cases of COVID-19 on Friday, as well as 12 additional deaths from the virus. A total of 691 Albertans are also currently in hospital with COVID-19, of which 115 are in ICU.

Manitoba added another 171 cases on Friday, as well as two more deaths. In Saskatchewan, eight more deaths were recorded, as well as another 305 confirmed infections.

Several Atlantic provinces reported new cases Friday as well, with Nova Scotia adding another four COVID-19 infections, New Brunswick reporting another 30 and Newfoundland and Labrador reporting just one.

Nunavut reported a single case on Friday as well, its first infections since Dec. 28. Both the Yukon and the Northwest Territories as well as P.E.I. reported new COVID-19 cases on Friday.

Worldwide, cases of the novel coronavirus continue to increase with a total of 98,112,625 patients having been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Over 2,104,000 people have since died, with the U.S., India and Brazil leading in both cases and deaths.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Canada is on the hunt for coronavirus variants — but may not be able to keep up with outbreaks – CBC.ca

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This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.


Canada is on the hunt for highly contagious strains of the coronavirus, but experts say they could already be spreading across the country and we may not be able to keep up with surveillance as more outbreaks occur.

Only five per cent of virus samples in Canada are tested for coronavirus variants, including those first identified in South Africa, Brazil and the U.K. — with the latter estimated to be at least 56 per cent more transmissible than the main coronavirus and potentially more deadly as well.

There have been at least 34 cases of variants confirmed in Canada in recent weeks, but several have no known link to travel and have prompted concerns the variants could be already driving outbreaks undetected.

“To ensure that virus variants that can spread more easily do not take hold, there is even greater urgency to suppress COVID-19 activity in Canada,” Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Wednesday.

First variant outbreak in Canada a ‘wake-up call’

Canada’s first outbreak due to a coronavirus variant was identified this week at the Roberta Place long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., where at least 81 staff and almost all 130 residents have been infected with COVID-19 since the outbreak was declared on Jan. 8, including 27 who have died.

Local public health officials suspected the outbreak was caused by the variant first identified in the U.K., also known as B117and sent samples to public health laboratories for further testing earlier this week.

Six preliminary samples have since tested positive for a variant, but it will take days to determine whether the outbreak was caused by B117 or a different strain. 

“Barrie has become ground zero for what is likely a [coronavirus] variant of concern, which has spread rapidly throughout Roberta Place and we are concerned that it will spread into our community and into other long-term and retirement homes,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s medical officer of health.

“This is a race against time and we need to use the COVID-19 vaccine as our most effective means to protect these residents. We have to do what we can to prevent other outbreaks.”

Local public health officials said Friday night they were accelerating the vaccine rollout in light of the outbreak and will begin vaccinating residents and staff at the long-term care home this weekend.

The Roberta Place long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., is facing Canada’s first outbreak where a coronavirus variant was detected. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Prof. Robyn Lee, a genomic epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said the situation at Roberta Place should be “another wake-up call that we really need to be doing something to stop transmission in the community and to test people to make sure that this doesn’t come into long-term care facilities.” 

Lee is awaiting the full results from the Public Health Ontario laboratory to see which variant specifically was spreading at Roberta Place, but says it’s likely we’ll see more outbreaks across Canada in the near future. 

“These variants appear to be more transmissible, which means we’re going to see more cases — especially if they do kind of kick off,” she said.

Lee says Canada needs to “very seriously crack down” with public health measures and speed up vaccination rollouts across the country in response to the threat posed by variants.

A visitor talks to a resident through a window of the Roberta Place long-term care home on Monday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“What we’re seeing in Roberta Place is what happens when these get in and how aggressive they can be,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University.

“The whole concern about this variant is it getting into care facilities and places with vulnerable people — and it did exactly that.” 

Chagla said the Roberta Place outbreak has also raised concerns that variants could be the driving factor behind other recent COVID-19 outbreaks in Canada with unusually high numbers of cases in a short period of time. 

“There certainly is a worry that some of those were actually related to coronavirus variants,” he said.

“There’s probably a bigger burden out there.”

‘Detective work’ identifying variants is slow

Testing for the variants is done through a time-consuming process called genomic sequencing, which requires highly specialized staff and equipment and takes days to return results — precious time when variants could spread more widely. 

“We need to increase our surveillance of the virus in Canada,” said Art Poon, an associate professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at Western University in London, Ont.

“We need the resources to do more sequencing so that we have better capability of tracking the spread of not only variants of concern, but other variants that may be arising in Canada.” 

Catalina Lopez-Correa, executive director of the Canadian COVID Genomics Network (CanCOGen), which was formed in April 2020 to track variants and co-ordinate viral genome sequencing across Canada, said that while the number of samples tested in Canada is low, the testing efforts are focused on very specific samples. 

“It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the strategy,” she said. “It’s about prioritizing the right samples and co-ordinating efforts.” 

Lopez-Correa said CanCOGen’s strategy for testing for variants in Canada includes targeting fast-spreading outbreaks; geographic regions with an unusually high growth in cases; younger patients with very severe disease; reinfections; and those infected after being vaccinated.

There are currently eight labs across Canada testing virus samples for the variants, including the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg and seven other provincial labs. 

“Some people are calling us genomic detectives and that’s exactly what we are,” said Lopez-Correa. “It’s detective work trying to figure out where those variants are and how to trace them.” 

But although scientists are working around the clock to test the samples, they can only move as fast as the results will allow — meaning scaling up surveillance in the face of faster spreading variants isn’t easy. 

WATCH | Coronavirus variant first detected in U.K. may have higher death risk: Boris Johnson

While saying the variant of the coronavirus first detected in the U.K. may be associated with a higher degree of mortality, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it’s also putting additional pressure on the nation’s health-care system. 1:42

“If you have a contained outbreak in a specific geographical region, you don’t need to sequence everybody that’s infected in that outbreak, because most of them will have the same variant of the virus,” Lopez-Correa said. “But, of course, it’s a challenge to increase the amount of samples we’re doing.” 

CanCOGen was created with initial federal funding of $40 million, half of which was allocated specifically for sequencing the virus, but Lopez-Correa said Canada could divert more money to staff and resources to test for the variants faster.

Lee said even with increased funding there is only a certain amount of surveillance Canada can reasonably do, given that the labs work on samples for all kinds of different viruses across the country. 

“Ideally, we would be sequencing more, and I know there are efforts to do this, but there are some limitations,” she said, including the time it takes to collect samples, transport them to specific labs, sequence them and analyze the results. 

“That involves a lot of different people and a lot of different resources. So, while it would be great to keep scaling up, there are going to be limits on what can be done.” 

Canada ‘way behind’ on sharing data on variants

The World Health Organization called on countries around the world to increase their capacity to test for variants earlier this month, but also underscored the need to share the data internationally. 

Poon said Canada is “way behind” in sharing data on variants around the world, partly because our public health system is understaffed and doesn’t currently have the resources to keep up with genomic surveillance.

“We are conservative about data sharing … I think that concerns about privacy have overridden calls to share data with other countries,” he said.

“Since this is a global pandemic, getting a clear picture of what’s going on requires open sharing of data between countries. But that’s not something that’s been happening with Canada.” 

Lopez-Correa said Canada could improve its capacity to share data across the country and internationally. She said data is first shared domestically before being sent overseas.

“We could do better, but we’re submitting the data,” she said. “If you look at regions like Africa, Latin America, they’re not generating that data. They don’t have the capacity.” 

Without effective international sharing of data, Canada could continue to see new variants arise in the future that are only identified after they’ve spread around the world. 

WATCH | Vaccinations a race against coronavirus variants: 

New coronavirus variants are increasing the pressure to get more people vaccinated before the variants derail those efforts and vaccines need to be retooled. 2:01

In the meantime, Lee said, the emergence of variants in Canada further underscores the need to vaccinate those most at risk of severe illness and death as soon as possible.

“Vaccination is going to play a critical role in this. We need to get everyone vaccinated who is in those long-term care facilities and all of the staff as well as their primary caregivers,” she said.

“I think that has to be the No. 1 priority at the moment.” 


To read the entire Second Opinion newsletter every Saturday morning, subscribe by clicking here.

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Canada deporting thousands even as pandemic rages

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canadian association of refugee lawyers

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada deported thousands of people even as COVID-19 raged last year, data seen by Reuters shows, and lawyers say deportations are ramping up, putting people needlessly at risk in the midst of a global health emergency.

Like many other countries, Canada is struggling to stop a second wave from spiraling out of control, and its political leaders are begging residents to stay home to prevent the spread.

Lawyers and human rights advocates are decrying Canada‘s November decision to resume deportations. Until now, the extent of the country’s pandemic deportations was not known, but recent interviews with immigration lawyers and scrutiny of government numbers has shed light on the situation.

Canada counted 12,122 people as removed in 2020 – 875 more than the previous year and the highest number since at least 2015, according to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) data seen by Reuters. The government says this was necessary and done safely.

The CBSA says the high number last year is because it includes people who decided to leave on their own, termed “administrative removals.” In 2019 there were 1,657 administrative removals, compared with 8,215 last year.

Even subtracting those numbers, that leaves thousands of people deported as the pandemic raged and governments cautioned against travel of any kind for safety reasons.

Even as Canada continues to deport non-citizens during a health crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden paused deportations for 100 days within hours of being sworn in on Wednesday.

Canada officially imposed a moratorium on deportations in March that it lifted at the end of November.

“As much as a human rights concern it’s a common sense concern,” said Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program.

Countries’ deportation practices have varied over the course of the pandemic. Several, including the United Kingdom, suspended deportations before resuming them. Others, like Ireland, have kept suspensions in place.

The CBSA said it has been prioritizing deportations for reasons of “serious admissibility,” including criminality.

The vast majority of people deported in 2020 were for reasons of “noncompliance.” Even taking into account administrative removals, more than 1,000 people were deported during the suspension, the data shows.

 

‘IT’S UNBELIEVABLE’

Public health experts have warned that travel of any kind can spread COVID-19 from one place to another, a risk that grows with the advent of more highly transmissible COVID variants.

Many of the deportation trips involve transfers at multiple airports and flights during which people are placed in enclosed space in close quarters with other people for hours at a time, a situation ripe for transmission.

Since August Canada has been conducting deportations with CBSA escorts, so Canadians are also making thousands of these round-trip flights for deportation purposes.

Organizations including the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers spoke out against Canada‘s decision to resume deportations.

“As everybody is putting in place more restrictions in an effort to flatten the curve … CBSA made a shocking decision to simply go back to business as usual,” said Maureen Silcoff, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

Canada has taken the position that nonessential travel is barred yet people are now being removed and there’s no indication that those removals are essential.”

The CBSA said in a statement it lifted the moratorium on deportations because foreign government offices and borders had reopened, airlines restarted their routes and public-health protocols “have contributed to a high degree of safety for persons being removed by air.”

Canada continues to uphold both its human rights and public safety obligations in relation to the removal of inadmissible foreign nationals,” the statement said. “The removal process includes many checks and balances to ensure that the removal is conducted in a fair and just manner.”

But these deportations are endangering not only the people being deported but the government officers tasked with accompanying them to their destination, lawyers say.

Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman’s Toronto office went from getting no removal cases to getting three or four in the space of a week, he said. He is now fighting for a failed refugee claimant with two young Canadian children who faces deportation to Egypt Monday.

“They’re ramping it up as if there was no pandemic,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

 

 

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Matthew Lewis)

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