After two months of relative stability, Canada’s COVID-19 case count is expected to rise rapidly in the coming weeks as virus variants take hold.
Canada is projected to hit roughly 1 million total cases next week, according to data released today by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).
While the vaccination campaign has ramped up after a period of scarcity, the rollout can’t keep pace with the spread of the virus, said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer. Tam today urged Canadians to reduce their contacts in the medium-term while provinces and territories deploy more shots in the months to come.
“COVID-19 still has a few tricks in store and we need to hold on together a bit stronger and longer until vaccines have us protected,” Tam said.
While the setback is “discouraging,” she said, better days are ahead. “We are closer now than ever, but it’s still too soon to relax measures.”
Asked today when things might return to a pre-pandemic “normal,” Tam said that day is not imminent. With the caseload curve trending up, variants accelerating and vaccine distribution still quite low, a post-COVID-19 Canada is still months away, she said.
“It’s not going to be, ‘Here’s a date and after that date all is going to be good.’ It’s data, not dates,” she said. “By the fall — that’s what I think we should be aiming for.”
COVID-19 variants like B117, which is thought to have originated in the U.K., now account for a high proportion of new cases and make up half of all new cases in some areas. There are roughly 3,000 new cases being reported each day nationwide, up from about 2,000 a month ago.
Case count could rise to 12,000 a day
With variants now circulating widely, PHAC said the case count could rise to 12,000 a day if Canadians maintain or increase the number of people they are in contact with daily. The public health measures in place in most jurisdictions will be “insufficient” to keep cases at bay, the agency said.
Alberta, B.C. and Ontario are projected to see the biggest spike in daily cases — early data suggest variants are particularly widespread in these provinces. PHAC predicts Ontario alone could record as many as 10,000 cases a day if public health measures are relaxed or maintained at their current level.
While an increase in the number of new cases is almost certain over the coming weeks in the six provinces west of Atlantic Canada, PHAC says that the country will be able to hold the line at 5,000 cases a day if Canadians reduce their contacts.
PHAC is projecting the death rate will be relatively lower than it was with past caseload spikes because some of the most vulnerable people — long term care home residents, seniors, Indigenous adults — have been vaccinated.
Tam warned, however, that the B117 variant may lead to more severe cases and could prove to be more deadly.
The public health agency said it expects many of the new cases to come from people aged 20 to 39. While death is less likely in this demographic, younger patients still face the prospect of severe health outcomes.
“The younger people, you’re going to get some people who are going to end up in hospital,” Tam said.
PHAC is predicting the cumulative case count — the number of cases reported since this pandemic began — will jump over the next week from 951,000 to between 973,000 and 1,005,000.
The spread of the variants — which are more transmissible than the strain first discovered in Wuhan — has also resulted in an increase in hospitalizations. There are now some 2,200 people in hospitals — 600 of them in intensive care units.
But the vaccination campaign is starting to bear fruit, with case counts among the 80-plus age cohort declining dramatically.
While there were 35 cases per 100,000 people aged 80 or older in January, the case rate has dropped to less than 5 per 100,000.
Most provinces and territories have been directing the early supply of mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna to seniors. About 60 per cent of all people over the age of 80 have received at least one shot, PHAC said.
The number of outbreaks in long-term care homes is also much lower than it was just three months ago. There were as many as 500 long-term care home outbreaks at any one time in December, while there have been fewer than 100 reported throughout March.
While the surge in variants is troubling news a year into this pandemic, PHAC presented data Friday that may offer some hope.
In Israel and the U.K. — two countries that were among those hit hardest by variants earlier this year — caseloads have dropped dramatically because vaccines have been deployed widely.
In three months’ time, their case rates have gone from being the highest in the Western world to among the lowest. In Israel, for example, the daily case rate has gone from 1,000 new cases per one million people to less than 100 per one million over the last 12 weeks.
Israel now has enough supply to vaccinate every citizen with a single shot, while 32 million shots have been deployed in the U.K., enough to vaccinate half of all Britons with a single shot.