COVID-19 variants will drive resurgence without stronger health measures, modelling warns

New modelling released by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) warns that COVID-19 variants could drive a resurgence in coronavirus cases across the country without stronger public health measures to prevent their spread.

National data show the pandemic has been coming under control recently, with numerous key indicators such as case counts, deaths, hospitalizations and long-term care outbreaks declining over the past few weeks. But the modelling suggests the spread of more contagious virus variants could swiftly reverse that progress.

“With the emergence and spread of new variants of concern, we are cautioned that unless we maintain and abide by stringent public health measures, we may not be able to avert a re-acceleration of the epidemic in Canada,” said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam during a virtual news conference on Friday.

“These variants have been smouldering in the background and now threaten to flare up.”

WATCH | Tam releases COVID-19 modelling with virus variants:

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam releases new modelling that includes the impact of COVID-19 variants. 1:54

The average number of daily cases reported over the past seven days is roughly 3,000 — down from a January peak of over 8,000 per day.

Tam said there are now fewer than 33,000 active cases in Canada — a 60 per cent drop compared to a month ago — and the number of people dying each day from the virus is also down by 58 per cent.

At the same time, over 700 cases have been linked to three variants of concern — the B117 variant first identified in the U.K., the B1351 variant first identified in South Africa, and the P1 variant first traced to travellers from Brazil. Variant cases have been detected in 10 provinces and there is evidence of community spread in at least five.

Scientists believe these variants could be up to 50 per cent more transmissible. Recent modelling from Quebec and Ontario suggests they could become the dominant strains in the coming weeks. 

Cases could rise to 20,000 per day if restrictions relaxed

Short- and long-term forecasts that exclude the spread of COVID-19 variants show infection rates flattening and declining in the coming weeks, even if people maintain their current numbers of daily contacts.

But when the more contagious variants are included, projections show a dramatic spike in cases to 10,000 per day by the end of March if current restrictions are maintained. 

The modelling shows the epidemic curve taking an almost vertical path to 20,000 cases per day by mid-March if public health restrictions are relaxed even further.

“Further lifting of the public health measures would cause the epidemic to re-surge rapidly and strongly,” Tam said. “And current community-based public health measures will be insufficient to control rapid growth and resurgence as forecast.”

(Public Health Agency of Canada)

The dire prediction comes even as some provinces plan to reopen their economies in response to declining case counts. Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba have all decided to relax restrictions in recent days, allowing many non-essential businesses such as restaurants and gyms to reopen.

Newfoundland and Labrador, meanwhile, went into a snap lockdown last week in response to an outbreak driven by the B.1.1.7 variant.

Tam said that kind of swift response is necessary.

“A rapid, decisive public health response by the province is what is needed to stop a variant of concern in its tracks,” said Tam.

Provinces that consider reopening should do so carefully and slowly, and make sure that proper surveillance testing is in place so that public health authorities can monitor the spread and respond accordingly, Tam said.

“Why would you ease your measures? Only if you’ve got the sequencing in place, you’ve got your testing to a good level, you know that when you’ve got a case you can contact their contacts,” Tam said. “If those things are not well in place, one shouldn’t be easing those measures.”

Tam said Canada has not yet vaccinated enough people to provide widespread protection, adding that even countries that have vaccinated more people have had to maintain strict rules to keep variants under control.

WATCH | Tam says COVID-19 resurgence likely if people ease off public health measures:

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam warns that a resurgence of COVID-19 is likely if people ease off public health measures. 2:18

At a press conference today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged provincial and territorial leaders not to relax public health measures too quickly.

“We need to make sure that — even as provinces look at loosening up certain restrictions — that other restrictions are kept in, and 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 much more regularly,” he said.

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