For months, it was de rigueur to talk about “flattening the curve” – to work assiduously to bring down the number of daily new cases of COVID-19.
In our rush to get kids back to school, employees back to work and squeeze in some bar-hopping, weddings, karaoke and dancing during the dog days of summer, we seem to have forgotten that goal.
In the past week, new COVID-19 cases have risen by more than 500 daily across Canada – double the number of mid-July, when it looked like the curve actually was flattening.
Since then, we’ve been letting down our guard, with predictable results.
On Sunday, Quebec recorded 205 new cases, the highest number since early June. On Saturday, Ontario reported 169 cases, its biggest tally since July.
British Columbia and Alberta only report on weekdays but, when their new numbers are published on Tuesday, we can expect them to be disconcertingly high. The two Western provinces have been seeing their case numbers rise markedly, into the triple digits daily, relatively much worse than the populous Central Canadian provinces. The curve is heading upward everywhere except the Atlantic provinces, and we don’t seem to care.
This phenomenon is not unique to Canada. Pandemic fatigue is setting in around the world. People have been ignoring, and in some cases rebelling against, restrictions such as mask-wearing and limits on the size of gatherings. Where cases are not creeping back up, they are soaring anew.
Last week, Spain recorded more than 10,000 cases in a single day and France 9,000 cases, both daily records. We barely talk about the United States any more, perhaps because so many other things are going terribly wrong in the country, but its pandemic numbers are still jumping by 50,000 daily. India is in a whole other stratosphere, with more than 85,000 cases in a day.
Globally, there are now an average of more than 300,000 new cases daily, and about 5,500 deaths. The relatively small number of deaths has helped make people complacent.
But mortality is not the only measure that matters. Increasingly, young adults are being infected and a disconcerting minority of them are developing chronic symptoms. Some scientists are saying we should now consider COVID-19 to be a cardiovascular disease more than a respiratory illness.
The pandemic is far from over. The virus is unforgiving.
None of this is comforting to parents as most students prepare to return to school after Labour Day.
It can’t be repeated enough that the single most important factor in keeping children (and teachers, and family members back at home) safe is maintaining low numbers in the community.
If the risk is low in the community, it will be low in schools.
Yet what we’re seeing unfold in the community is troubling. We don’t have a good idea about where the 500-600 people a day testing positive in Canada are being infected. Our public-health authorities have a strange obsession with secrecy, but information trickles out occasionally.
In York Region, in suburban Toronto, there are several cases linked to weddings. A night out in a Quebec City karaoke bar resulted in at least 70 cases – including in at least three schools.
In fact, what’s going on in Quebec schools – most of which resumed classes Aug. 27 – is noteworthy. On Friday, provincial Health Minister Christian Dubé said cases had been reported in 49 schools. (The grassroots group Covid Écoles says the correct number is 84.)
But there are 3,100 schools in Quebec, meaning fewer than 3 per cent are affected. To date, all the schools have single cases; there are no outbreaks.
This should provide comfort to parents elsewhere because it suggests that not many more children are testing positive now than before the return to school.
What’s important is that education and health officials across Canada be transparent about where cases occur, and put the numbers in context.
With all eyes riveted on primary and secondary schools, we have paid too little attention to postsecondary institutions in Canada, many of which will have a blend of online and in-class instruction. Judging from what we’re seeing elsewhere, especially in U.S. colleges and universities, the real risk of spread exists in school settings, because young adults can be pretty cavalier.
Nobody really wants lockdowns again. But living with coronavirus – rather than in fear of it – requires vigilance about basic public-health measures such as handwashing, physical distancing, mask-wearing and minimizing social interactions.
That may be frustrating, and tedious, but it’s the only way we can get back to flattening the curve and reaping the benefits, chief among them a safe school environment for our kids.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.