Federal health officials and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued consecutive stark warnings on Friday: now is the time for “extra” vigilance around the new coronavirus variants as a continued spread could spark a third wave in Canada.
While the national COVID-19 curve is bending, with more cases of novel coronavirus variants being detected across Canada, now is not the time to ease up on public health restrictions, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Friday.
“These past weeks have been very challenging, but we've made great progress and are now almost two-thirds of the way down this curve… But we'll need to keep putting the brakes on the spread of new virus variants of concern in Canada,” Tam said during a briefing on the current COVID-19 situation on Friday morning.
Echoing this, Trudeau said that while it is a “positive sign” that cases are going down across the country, people need to remain cautious as some modelling is indicating an increase in variant spread could spark a third wave.
“Nobody wants a third wave to start, particularly not one comprised of new more communicable variants that can cause real challenges.”
On Friday, the federal government announced a new $53 million “variants of concern strategy,” to increase capacity to research, find, track and sequence the three prominent variants of concern: B.1.1.7 which originated in the U.K., B.1.351 which originated in South Africa, and P.1 which originated in Brazil.
“You might be worried about these new strains… we're putting our best experts on it,” Trudeau said adding that: “Canada is ready” to handle the variants, though at present, the surveillance strategy for testing positive cases to detect these strains, varies across the country.
The new strategy includes a partnership between the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory, Health Canada, Genome Canada, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The group of epidemiology, immunology and virology experts will advise on drug therapy and vaccine effectiveness, as well as broader public health measures.
The strategy will also implement standardized data sharing across the country.
Tam said that part of the fight against the variants will also be through the ongoing vaccine rollout, though at present, mass vaccinations aren’t set to begin until April, meaning for the next month and a half the immunization campaign will continue prioritizing front-line health care workers, seniors, and other vulnerable populations.
As a result, most Canadians will have to continue to increase their vigilance with measures like physical distancing, mask wearing and hand washing to do their part.
On Friday Trudeau confirmed that by the end of March Pfizer will have sent its promised total of four million vaccine doses, and as part of the Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout the pharmaceutical giant will be sending 10.8 million doses between April and June.
“This is a really delicate period,” Tam said. “Look at the European countries, they give us a clue as to what might happen if variants circulating and we let our guard down,” she said, adding that if that happens Canada could see a “massive acceleration” leading to a “third resurgence.”
Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said during Friday’s briefing that, as early as next week, federal health officials will be presenting updated national modelling that will factor in the potential impact these variants will have on the country’s epidemic curve.
SHOULD PROVINCES REOPEN?
There are now eight provinces that have reported having cases of at least one of the variants of concern.
These warnings come as some provinces are mulling easing lockdowns once again, including in Ontario where there have been cases of all three variants. On Thursday, modelling experts in that province reported that the case count will “likely rise” in Ontario if these new highly contagious variants spread further into communities.
Asked whether he thinks the threat variants pose merits evoking the Emergencies Act or if further intervention would be required to dissuade provinces from easing up on certain restrictions, Trudeau wouldn’t comment directly on the approaches of the provinces but said all Canadians need to be “extra vigilant.”
“As certain restrictions are perhaps eased by certain provinces, and people get to go out a little bit more, all the more reason,” Trudeau said, suggesting it’s an opportune time to download the federal COVID Alert exposure notification app and refrain from gathering with others.
He also noted the billions of dollars sent to the provinces to help them support their citizens when they have to make decisions like keeping sectors closed to keep case counts down.
“We make our decisions based on the best recommendations of our health officials and as a federal government we will be there to support and encourage the right decisions by the provinces,” Trudeau said.
As of Friday afternoon there are more than 36,000 active COVID-19 cases Canada-wide. To date there have been more than 819,000 cases and more than 21,100 people have died in this country.