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For the first time since the second wave took off, Canada is seeing a sustained drop in the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus every day, a signal that restrictions in the country’s two largest provinces are, at last, making a difference.

As of Thursday night, the national seven-day average of new COVID-19 infections reported daily – a measure that smooths out single-day blips – sat at 6,080 cases, down 26 per cent from an all-time high of 8,217 on Jan. 10. Active cases nationwide have fallen by one-fifth since the start of the month.

Daily COVID-19 cases reported in Canada

Seven-day rolling average

Man

B.C.

Alta.

Sask.

Ont.

Que.

Atlantic and Territories

10,000

Jan. 10

8,217

7,500

5,000

2,500

0

Sept.

2020

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Jan.

2021

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

Daily COVID-19 cases reported in Canada

Seven-day rolling average

Man

B.C.

Alta.

Sask.

Ont.

Que.

Atlantic and Territories

10,000

Jan. 10

8,217

7,500

5,000

2,500

0

Sept.

2020

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Jan.

2021

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

Daily COVID-19 cases reported in Canada

Seven-day rolling average

B.C.

Sask.

Man

Ont.

Alta.

Que.

Atlantic and Territories

10,000

Jan. 10

8,217

7,500

5,000

2,500

0

Sept.

2020

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Jan.

2021

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

The number of Canadians being treated in hospital for COVID-19, an indicator that lags new cases, was 4,347 on Thursday, down slightly from 4,715 at the peak on Jan. 12, according to provincial data. (Deaths, which lag cases even further, are near a second-wave high of 154 reported a day, on average.)

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The encouraging trends in cases are, unfortunately, emerging at a perilous moment in the course of the pandemic. More contagious versions of the coronavirus are popping up all over the world, including in Canada, where a still-to-be identified variant is believed to be responsible for a fast-moving outbreak at a nursing home in Barrie, Ont.

A few dozen other infections caused by the concerning variants have been identified in Canada through viral genome sequencing since December.

COVID-19 vaccines, meanwhile, are not coming to Canada as fast as hoped. Vaccine-maker Pfizer Inc., is cutting shipments to Canada over the next month as it retools a Belgian plant to pump out more doses in the future.

“It’s a race of the vaccines against the new variants in terms of the timelines,” said Jens von Bergmann, the head of MountainMath, a Vancouver data-analytics and modelling company. “The odds are that the new variants will win.”

For that reason, Dr. von Bergmann said, slowing transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is as important as ever.

Alberta and Manitoba, the two provinces that experienced the worst per-capita spikes of the second wave so far, have already managed to bend their curves substantially. British Columbia’s curve of new infections has been on a gradual reduction since the beginning of December. Saskatchewan’s new case count, currently the highest in the country on a per-capita basis, appears to have levelled off in the past week.

Alberta has seen a 64-per-cent drop in the seven-day average of new cases since its peak on Dec. 8.

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The equivalent figure in Manitoba is down 61 per cent since peaking Nov. 24, but the Prairie province is now struggling with a surge in infections in its northern region, home to many isolated First Nations reserves.

“We really had to fight hard all of November and into December to see just a very slow and gradual decline,” said Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist and founder of Epi Research Inc., in Winnipeg. “Things are going in the right direction, but we are concerned about our fellow Manitobans in the northern health region.”

Rate of daily reported COVID-19 cases

Seven-day rolling average (per 100,000 people)

British Columbia

Alberta

Dec. 8

Nov. 19

40

40

Enhanced

restrictions

National

rate

20

20

0

0

Sep

Nov

Jan

Sep

Nov

Jan

Saskatchewan

Manitoba

Nov. 10

Dec. 17

40

40

20

20

0

0

Sep

Nov

Jan

Sep

Nov

Jan

Ontario

Quebec

Jan. 9

Dec. 26

40

40

20

20

0

0

Sep

Nov

Jan

Sep

Nov

Jan

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

Rate of daily reported COVID-19 cases

Seven-day rolling average (per 100,000 people)

British Columbia

Alberta

Dec. 8

Nov. 19

40

40

Enhanced

restrictions

National

rate

20

20

0

0

Sep

Nov

Jan

Sep

Nov

Jan

Saskatchewan

Manitoba

Nov. 10

Dec. 17

40

40

20

20

0

0

Sep

Nov

Jan

Sep

Nov

Jan

Ontario

Quebec

Jan. 9

Dec. 26

40

40

20

20

0

0

Sep

Nov

Jan

Sep

Nov

Jan

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

Rate of daily reported COVID-19 cases

Seven-day rolling average (per 100,000 people)

British Columbia

Alberta

Saskatchewan

Dec. 8

Nov. 19

Dec. 17

40

40

40

Enhanced

restrictions

National

rate

20

20

20

0

0

0

Sep

Nov

Jan

Sep

Nov

Jan

Sep

Nov

Jan

Manitoba

Ontario

Quebec

Jan. 9

Nov. 10

Dec. 26

40

40

40

20

20

20

0

0

0

Sep

Nov

Jan

Sep

Nov

Jan

Sep

Nov

Jan

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

Quebec and Ontario, which together account for about two-thirds of Canada’s population, are finally seeing their case counts drop as well, though experts say their infection rates remain at unmanageably high levels.

Throughout the fall and into the holidays, the case curves in both provinces seemed impervious to restrictions. Each time officials tightened the rules, cases would either plateau or keep rising.

In response, Quebec imposed the country’s first overnight curfew on Jan. 9. Ontario imposed a provincewide lockdown on Dec. 26 and a stay-at-home order on Jan. 14, one critics derided as too confusing and loophole-ridden to work.

But as of Thursday night, Ontario’s seven-day average of new daily cases was 2,751, down 22 per cent from a high of 3,555 on Jan. 11. Quebec has seen a 36-per-cent drop in its seven-day average of new cases since peaking Jan. 9.

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“Overall, it’s a pretty sharp decline,” David Buckeridge, a McGill University epidemiologist, said. New admissions to hospitals for COVID-19 care are also down, he added.

Dr. Buckeridge, who works on coronavirus modelling for the Quebec government, found a hopeful signal in some recent Quebec hospital data. The proportion of COVID-19 patients admitted into hospital from long-term care homes dropped from 8.3 per cent the week of Jan. 5 to 6.9 per cent the week of Jan. 12 to 3.3 per cent the week of Jan.19.

“One hypothesis is that it may be an early sign of the impact of vaccination – may be, I stress,” he said. “But it would be delightful if that’s the case.”

Quebec, which began inoculating residents of its nursing homes in the middle of December, announced this week that 87 per cent of residents at all of its long-term care facilities had received the first dose of the two-shot vaccination regimen.

Still, far too few Canadians have received a COVID-19 shot to have any impact on the trajectory of the country’s epidemic. The explanation for the falling case counts is more straightforward, according to Greg Lyle, president of polling firm Innovative Research Group.

“Why are we doing better now in terms of cases than we were two or three weeks ago?” he said. “It’s really clear. It’s because we’re out less.”

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Canadians are now avoiding the riskiest behaviours, including attending large gatherings and meeting in small groups in each other’s homes, at levels not seen since last March, according to an online survey of more than 2,000 Canadians that Innovative Research Group conducted Jan. 7-19.

Traffic and cellphone data from the city of Toronto back that up. Toronto’s seven-day averages for new cases and new hospital admissions have dropped steadily over the past week. “We are asking people to hang on,” Toronto Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa said Thursday.

With a report from Jeremy Agius

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