Canada ‘at a crossroads’: COVID-19 will keep spreading if behaviours don’t change, Tam says

OTTAWA — The latest federal modelling on the COVID-19 pandemic shows that in the short-term, Canada’s epidemic is set to keep growing, predicting up to 155,795 total cases and 9,300 deaths by Oct. 2, unless Canadians re-adopt the same degree of health precautions they took in the early months of the pandemic.

Federal health officials released updated national COVID-19 modelling on Tuesday, as there continues to be a surge in new cases of the virus across several provinces, prompting renewed anxieties about Canada’s ability to stave off a full blown second wave.

There are currently nearly 11,000 active COVID-19 cases in Canada, while another 126,230 patients have recovered. To date, more than 9,200 Canadians have died from the novel coronavirus.

“Canada is at a crossroads and individual action to reduce contact rates will decide our path,” said the federal presentation document provided to reporters.

The new modelling shows how the course of the pandemic Canada charts in the weeks ahead will vary greatly depending on the precautions in place, projecting big spikes this fall if Canadians don’t redouble efforts to limit the number of close contacts they have, maintain physical distance from people not in their immediate social bubbles, wear masks when distancing can’t be maintained, and stay home if experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms.

“All of us have the future in our hands in terms of the decisions we’re making today,” said Health Minister Patty Hajdu at Tuesday’s briefing. “Those decisions that we make today, to say ‘no’, to connect in different ways, to keep our gathering sizes small, to ensure that we’re not socializing more than absolutely necessary, are going to actually help drive the cases down. It’s a sacrifice that we all have to make.”

Cases reported now reflect increasing transmission one to two weeks ago, and the projections indicate that if Canada maintains its current rate of contacts, the epidemic will come back “faster and stronger,” warned Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer.

It’s time to re-adopt the personal protection and separation measures that were taken in March and April to have a change at reversing the epidemic growth, she said.

Tam said that with minimal controls—which is not Canada’s current reality— the epidemic in Canada is capable of surging into a “very sharp and intense peak” because most Canadians don’t have immunity to the virus.

“This surge could overwhelm our health system capacity and significantly impact social and economic systems as well,” she said.

As of the latest round of pandemic projections released last month, Canada’s top public health officials said they are were preparing for a fall peak of COVID-19 cases, and that there would likely be localized outbreaks until at least January 2022.

Tuesday’s data shows that the spread of the virus is accelerating nationally, but unevenly across Canada, with the Atlantic bubble not seeing the same surge in cases as other provinces are.

Hospitalizations lag behind increases in reported cases but show early signs of increase, while COVID-19-related deaths remain low. The latest data also show that there are outbreaks now being reported in a greater number of settings, including as a result of private gatherings, as well as in long-term care homes and schools.

The August modelling showed the rate of infections has hit young adults between the ages of 20 and 39 the hardest since June. This continues to be the case, as shown in Tuesday’s figures, prompting a specific plea from Canada’s top public health officer to young people to act responsibly.

Tam said then that her team was preparing for a scenario “several times worse” than the first wave, but was confident that Canada is more prepared than in March to handle another surge.

It was during April’s briefing on modeling that showed that Canadians had initially flattened the curve in many regions of Canada, which set off a cascade of easing of measures in many parts of the country that allowed for many businesses and workplaces to reopen and for social gathering sizes to increase.

Now, some regions are pulling back on what’s allowed and increasing their alert levels, in an effort to slow the spread, a move Tam said is necessary.

She stopped short of classifying the current uptick in cases as a second wave, saying that Canada is “riding this pandemic” like ski mogul hills, and it’s too early to say whether the rates of cases being reported now are the start of a huge increase or just one bump along the road.

Though, the new figures indicate that as has been the experience in other countries, a second COVID-19 resurgence can exceed the initial wave.

“The challenge we face now is to stay the course, no matter how weary we may feel. We have done this before, we know what works, and we know we can work together to get this done,” Tam said.

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