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opinion

Toronto's Yonge St. on March 3, 2021.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Shutdown. Emergency brake.

In Doug Ford’s Ontario, these words have ceased to have meaning.

A “lockdown” literally means locking things down – or it should.

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

COVID-19 news: Updates and essential resources about the pandemic

Which COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’ are in Canada? Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Lambda explained

COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.

Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.

ALPHA (B.1.1.7)

  • Country of origin: Britain
  • Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
  • Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.

BETA (B.1.351)

  • Country of origin: South Africa
  • Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
  • Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.

GAMMA (P.1)

  • Country of origin: Brazil
  • Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
  • Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.

DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)

  • Country of origin: India
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
  • Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.

LAMBDA (C.37)

  • Country of origin: Peru
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
  • Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.

If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?

Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.

Need more answers? Email audience@globeandmail.com

Tracking Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans: A continuing guide

If a lockdown is going to have a real impact on slowing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, it requires, for starters, a stay-at-home order and a curfew.

The “tough new measures” announced on Thursday include virtually no restrictions on movement or activities.

For all intents and purposes, nothing has changed; so, if new infections have been soaring for the past few weeks, what do we expect they will do now?

You don’t have to be an epidemiologist or a modeller to answer that question. But, for the record, the latest models predict up to 6,000 cases daily, an increase from about 2,500 currently, and a doubling of patients in intensive care to 800 from the current 421 by the end of the month.

The hospital situation is the most troubling. The last time Ontario started to max out its ICU capacity, there were about 3,500 cases a day. That’s a striking demonstration of how the variants are more brutal.

We need to remember too that younger people are now being infected and, while they are less likely to die than frail elders hit hardest earlier in the pandemic, they remain in hospital longer and are far more likely to have long-lasting symptoms. And, despite advances in treatment, about one-third of those who end up in COVID-19 intensive care end up dying.

These are not problems that can be solved by building hospitals or simply adding more ICU beds. Because a bed is not just a bed; it requires a highly skilled team of nurses, physicians and more, and 13 months into the pandemic, finding skilled health workers who are still standing is an ever-growing challenge.

It’s not surprising then that those screaming loudest for a real lockdown are those on the front lines.

They see up close an out-of-control train hurtling their way and desperately want someone to pull the emergency brake – not just talk about doing it.

Applying an emergency brake means screeching to a halt, stopping dead in your tracks. At least it should.

There may be a lot of screeching in Ontario, but there’s not much stopping.

What the province is doing, at best, is coasting.

Relatively low-risk activities such as outdoor dining are being stopped, while high-risk activities such as large church services can go ahead. Retail stores are still open. Movie theatres will close, but why were they open in the first place?

As the third wave of the pandemic continues to pick up steam, we have seemingly learned nothing from the two previous waves.

We can’t afford to blow it again.

One year ago, when the community spread of the novel coronavirus began in earnest in Canada – now known nostalgically, as the first wave – we had an opportunity to stop COVID-19 in its tracks, to shut it down.

Instead, most provinces dithered. We hemmed, we hawed and we embraced half-measures – mockdowns, not lockdowns.

Only the Atlantic provinces had the good sense to crack down hard and fast. They recognized that the best way to protect the economy is to protect people.

Other, larger provinces bought into the false health-versus-economy dichotomy and, worse yet, after the reluctantly tightened public-health measures, they reopened again too quickly and broadly.

Unsurprisingly, a second wave occurred, more brutal than the first.

Almost one million cases and 23,000 COVID-19 deaths later, we’re back at it again.

We have faster spreading, more destructive variants and they are creating an even more ominous reality: It’s not just individuals getting infected anymore, but entire families. Not just frail elders falling ill, but younger, healthier people.

The situation in Ontario, and large parts of Canada, shouldn’t be this depressing and dire. Vaccines are going to help us rein in the pandemic, but we need time to get them into arms and time for them to work.

There will be a time to heal, and a time to build up again.

But right now is the time to lock down. For real.

Health columnist André Picard answers reader questions about COVID-19 variants, how effective the various vaccines are and the impact of on-again, off-again lockdowns.

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