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Members of the Royal Canadian Air Force's 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron unload a CH147F Chinook helicopter as part of coronavirus relief efforts, upon arrival in Pauingassi First Nation, Manitoba, on Feb. 6, 2021.RCAF/Reuters

More contagious variants of COVID-19 have now been found in every province, leading to outbreaks in some remote communities and raising concerns about a resurgence of the coronavirus as many parts of the country move ahead with loosening restrictions.

At least four provinces now have variant cases that are linked to community contact – and not travel – including seven probable cases in Pauingassi First Nation, a remote community in eastern Manitoba. In Newfoundland, in-person voting for the provincial election was cancelled less than 12 hours before polls would have opened on Saturday, following a dramatic spike in cases – all linked to the B.1.1.7 variant originating in Britain. This weekend, Prince Edward Island became the last province to report a case, with the announcement that a patient diagnosed Feb. 4 who had travelled internationally had tested positive for the British variant.

The rising presence of “variants of concern” prompted Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, to urge the country to stay vigilant to prevent the epidemic from accelerating and becoming much harder to control.

COVID-19 variants reveal evolution’s power to rearm pandemic

Concerns about the variants has prompted Quebec to consider a delay on lifting more restrictions until after spring break in early March, according to Premier François Legault.

Much of Ontario, meanwhile, is slated to ease lockdown restrictions on Tuesday, allowing non-essential businesses to partly reopen, although the stay-at-home order will remain in place for Toronto, Peel Region, York Region and North Bay Parry Sound District until Feb. 22.

Public health officials say they will test all residents of a condo building in Mississauga for COVID-19 after five people who live there tested positive for the variant of the virus first identified in South Africa.

Caroline Colijn, an epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University who studies the evolution of pathogens, recently co-published modelling showing how, with existing public-health measures, a rapidly spreading variant could “spell disaster” by March if it’s not contained. According to the model, cases could double in one to two weeks, rather than the 30 to 40 days observed more recently in provinces such as Ontario.

To slow exponential spread, more variant-specific measures will be required, Dr. Colijn said – including targeted lockdowns and stepped-up testing in hot spots, as well as detailed forward-and-backward contact tracing to quickly identify not only which patients may have been infected, but also who might have infected them.

The probable variant cases were found in Pauingassi as Manitoba relaxed its pandemic restrictions this weekend. Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said it’s unclear how the virus got into Pauingassi, located 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. The First Nation is so remote that there are no permanent roads to access it, although winter roads are constructed each year – but overcrowded housing and communal areas make it difficult to isolate people, Mr. Dumas noted.

Since the outbreak began three weeks ago, more than 100 of the community’s 600 or so residents have been infected. Isolation units and other resources were brought in to the community, which has only a small nursing station and no hospital. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces arrived just over a week ago to transport goods and medical supplies, conduct wellness checks and provide logistical support. Samples from patients believed to have been infected by the British variant have now been sent to the National Microbiology Lab for genomic sequencing.

The outbreak demonstrates “just how elusive this virus really is,” Mr. Dumas said. “Despite the diligence and efforts of everyone, we have to realize that we’re all at risk … we can’t become complacent.”

With a decline in new daily cases in Quebec, the Premier had said he would review restrictions on Feb. 22. But late last week, he said waiting until March may be the wiser move.

“These new variants are very worrying,” Mr. Legault said. “They will play a big part in the decisions we make in coming weeks.”

The government announced Thursday it will screen all positive COVID-19 tests in Montreal for variants of concern and boost rapid testing, particularly in schools. While a provincial curfew remains in place, most Quebec primary students returned to school Jan. 11, and high schoolers one week later. Business and services in red zones in the province, which includes Quebec City, Montreal and Gatineau, remain under tighter restrictions than less-populated parts of the province.

British scientists have raised the alarm that the British variant shows signs of being more lethal than the original virus, but it may be too early to know if that will be the case in Canada. As of Saturday, none of the new variant cases in Newfoundland have led to hospitalization, and cases with symptoms have been mild – although the more recent patients fall into older age groups, where the risk of serious complications are higher.

Quebec’s Director of Public Health, Horacio Arruda, said the variant isn’t yet taking a toll on hospital resources at this point. At the same time, “a series of factors are changing,” he said. “We now see that despite improving numbers, there seems to be an acceleration in schools, plus we have new variants and spring break is coming.”

There were 3,047 new cases in Canada on Saturday, bringing the total to 823,353 confirmed cases. There were 66 new reported deaths on Saturday.

-With a file from Canadian Press

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said five people at a condo building in Mississauga had tested positive for the COVID-19 variant first identified in Britain. In fact, the variant was identified in South Africa.

The large number of COVID-19 infections in some places makes it more likely for new variants of the virus to emerge. Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk explains how vaccines may not be as effective against these new strains, making it a race to control and track the spread of variants before they become a dangerous new outbreak.

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