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Stopping COVID-19 is now a race between the vaccine and the variants, Canada’s top doctor says


Stopping COVID-19 is now a race between the vaccine and the variants, Canada’s top doctor says

OTTAWA—More contagious virus variants have fuelled an alarming new rise in COVID-19 infections, putting Canada on track for a strong resurgence of the epidemic, according to new national scientific modelling released Friday.

Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam presented data showing rising case counts, increased hospitalizations and ICU use, rising cases among young adults, and spiking numbers of variants — more than 7,000 nationally — among the new infections.

Tam presented a more ominous outlook ahead despite the ramp-up in vaccine deliveries that began this week.

Because of the highly contagious variants, she said, “the threat of uncontrolled epidemic growth is significantly elevated.”

Tam she said the forecasts show that public health measures must be retained or tightened further in provinces west of the Atlantic which are seeing higher rates of the variants until the rocky national vaccination campaign can begin to provide wider protection.

“Now is not the time” to increase contacts outside households, she said. Tam urged Canadians to double down now, as the weather warms and holidays like Easter, Passover and Ramadan approach.

“With more contagious variants spreading this model predicts that current community based public health measures will be insufficient to control rapid growth and resurgence,” said Tam.

“But if a combination of enhanced community-based public health measures and good adherence to individual precautions are implemented and sustained, the epidemic is forecasted to plateau.”

Tam said Canadians should not expect a return to more normal life until all those eligible for a vaccine (Canadians over age 16) have their double doses by the end of September.

Tam acknowledged certain activities that can move outdoors, like wider opening of restaurants and patios, will become more possible as summer approaches and individual safeguards are kept up — handwashing, physical distancing and mask-wearing — but she said her “goalpost” for a more normal reopening of social gathering spaces like schools and universities is the fall.

Since the start of the pandemic, Canada has seen more than 950,000 COVID-19 cases through two waves, the first last spring and the second over the Christmas and post-holiday period.

Other medical officers of health, like Ontario’s Dr. Barbara Yaffe, say the third wave has now begun.

Tam didn’t use that phrase, but the new longer range forecast that accounts for both non-variants and variants shows what could happen if more contagious variants continue to spread.

Total COVID-19 cases could rise to between 973,080 to more than 1 million by April 4, with cumulative deaths rising from 22,875 to 23,315, between depending on whether immediate steps are taken.

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The modelling showed the variant first reported in the U.K., known as the B.1.1.7 variant, now makes up more than 90 per cent of the new cases reported each day over the past week.

It’s not only more contagious, but it is also causing more severe disease, and so hospitalizations are on the rise — with 2,194 people needing to be admitted, and more than 600 in critical care, each day.

Average hospital stays range from two to three weeks in more serious cases, putting a prolonged strain on the health system, she said.

The incidence is highest among young adults aged 20-39 years in this phase. Although the incidence has declined among those aged 80 years and older, the group that got early priority access to vaccines, infections among young people could spread into older populations, and is cause for concern because nobody is immune to more severe illness caused by the variants.

Tam said more than 4.5 million vaccine doses have been administered since mid-December, with more than 10 per cent of Canadian adults having now received at least one dose. Nearly 60 per cent of seniors aged 80 and over have gotten one shot.

But it’s not enough.

The more contagious variants present a risk everywhere in the country, especially because there is evidence vaccines may be less effective against the variant first identified in South Africa, known as B.1.351, she said.

“We must all maintain physical distancing, reduce contacts outside our household to just essential activities, continue with good handwashing practices and wear well constructed, well fitting and properly worn face masks to protect ourselves and others,” said Tam. “For local authorities this means maintaining or immediately implementing strong public health measures which may include restrictions, closures or other community-based control measures to achieve reductions in contacts necessary to get ahead of or prevent further spread of rapidly spreading variants.”

Later, Procurement Minister Anita Anand tried to reassure Canadians that the “turbulence” and “volatility” in the global vaccine supply chain, and export restrictions cropping up in places like Europe, will not halt Canada’s vaccine rollout.

“It is a situation we have to watch very closely given the intense global competition for vaccines,” Anand said, but she indicated deliveries over the next three weeks will match the total vaccine supply over the past three months, with 6 million more doses scheduled to be delivered between now and April 18.

The next 6 million doses will include Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and the 1.5 million AstraZeneca shots that the Biden administration released to Canada which should arrive by truck next Tuesday.

That “supply surge” will continue despite a brief temporary delay this week in delivery of Moderna vaccines due to a quality assurance backlog that Anand announced late Thursday.

Anand said Pfizer and Moderna have told her their shipments for Canada for the next two weeks have already received the necessary export authorization from European authorities.

Anand acknowledged she still does not have a delivery schedule for the 10 million Johnson & Johnson doses that Canada is to receive in the second and third quarter, saying she will continue to press for a schedule or “if necessary negotiate” it.

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

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