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Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Oct. 5, 2020 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The second wave of Canada’s COVID-19 epidemic is shifting back toward older populations, prompting officials to renew pleas for Canadians to take action to protect those at highest risk of severe illness and death from the disease.

Since early July, people in their 20s and 30s have consistently accounted for the highest proportion of new SARS-CoV-2 infections. But Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam says that among a troubling rise in overall cases is the recent acceleration of infections in the elderly.

“We are now seeing a concerning rise in incidence among individuals 80 years of age and older, who are at the highest risk of severe and fatal outcomes,” she said at an epidemiology modelling update last Friday.

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Dr. Tam added that a growing number of outbreaks have also been reported in long-term care and retirement residences in recent weeks.

“While these outbreaks involve a smaller number of cases than in April and May, we know that spread in these facilities often leads to deaths,” Dr. Tam said in a statement on Saturday.

In its weekly epidemiology report, the Public Health Agency of Canada identified notable increases in incidence rates among both younger and older populations. From Sept. 27 to Oct. 3, the rate in adults at the age of 20 to 29 rose to 48.5 cases per 100,000, up from 39.3 the previous week; in adults at the age of 30 to 39, it was 33.5 per 100,000, up from 23.1.

Among those 80 and older, the rate was 26.8 per 100,000, up from 15.3 the previous week.

The latest data also show an 87-per-cent increase in deaths over the same period – the first notable rise in deaths since early May. In the most recent week, there were an average of 12 deaths reported a day, compared with seven a day the previous week.

Of 23 deaths for which individual-level information was available, 97 per cent were older than 60.

Amid the surge in cases among younger people over the summer, experts had cautioned that while they generally experience milder forms of COVID-19, the bigger problem is the demographic transmitting the disease to people at higher risk.

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“The big problem with 20 to 40-year-olds getting sick is not 20 to 40-year-olds getting sick,” said Srinivas Murthy, an infectious-disease expert and clinical associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia. “It’s 20 to 40-year-olds giving it to their parents, their grandparents and everyone else who is more vulnerable around them.”

Of nearly 200 outbreaks reported to the Public Health Agency of Canada in its latest reporting period, the largest proportion was in food, drink and retail settings (36 per cent), followed by long-term care and retirement residence (28 per cent) and schools and child care centres (18 per cent).

Provinces have recently taken steps to clamp down on coronavirus transmission at bars and restaurants. After a surge in cases over the summer, British Columbia on Sept. 8 ordered all nightclubs and banquet halls closed, and prohibited alcohol sales at bars and restaurants after 10 p.m. Quebec has also ordered a partial lockdown, closing bars and restaurants in Montreal, Quebec City and the Chaudière-Appalaches region from Oct. 1 to 28.

And Ontario, which last Friday hit a daily record high of 939 new COVID-19 cases, ordered sweeping restrictions in the hot spots of Toronto, Ottawa and Peel Region, prohibiting indoor dining and drink service at all bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

To date, more than eight million people have been tested for COVID-19 in Canada, with an average positivity rate of about 2.1 per cent. In the past week, an average of 71,665 people were tested a day, with a positivity rate of 2.5 per cent.

Canada reported a record 2,554 new COVID-19 cases last Friday, with the national case count doubling since the last epidemiology modelling update on Sept. 22.

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