One year ago, on March 8, 2020, Canada recorded its first COVID-19 death – a man in his 80s living at Lynn Valley Care Home in North Vancouver.
More than 22,200 deaths later, what have we learned?
First of all, we’ve learned when alarm bells go off, Canadian politicians and health officials don’t exactly spring into action. They express condolences, they fidget, they ponder – but they are reluctant to act quickly and forcefully.
One of the most important lessons of COVID-19 was articulated by Mike Ryan, head of emergencies at the World Health Organization, who said: “Speed trumps perfection. The greatest error is not to move.”
One year later, we are still slow to move – and a far cry from perfection.
When that first death occurred, it portended the calamity that was to come in long-term care. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of infectious diseases knew that people living in congregate settings were at great risk from a novel coronavirus.
In fact, a Globe column a year ago today – even before the first COVID-19 death was announced – warned that “senior care facilities are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks.” The frail elders living in those homes were sitting ducks.
The risk wasn’t just theoretical. At the time, older people were dying in large numbers in China, Italy and Spain, the first countries ravaged by the novel coronavirus.
Yet, while we threw up the ramparts around hospitals, nursing homes and retirement facilities were left to fend for themselves.
Those who know their ancient history – in pandemic terms, that means more than a few months – will recall that the first infections and deaths in long-term care homes also marked a sea change. Until then, all cases in Canada had been imported by travellers. Community transmission marked a dangerous new phase.
It was the week that everything changed – and community spread has continued since then.
The WHO declared that the spread of COVID-19 was officially a pandemic on March 11, 2020, months after it had been called a public-health emergency of international concern.
Still, governments were slow to move. Provincial states of emergency were declared, but lockdowns were not immediately implemented. Some March breaks went ahead, which would prove to be a dangerous accelerator of the spread of COVID-19.
Federal government modelling, released in early April of 2020, predicted that, even with strong measures, Canada would ultimately see somewhere between 11,000 and 22,000 deaths during the pandemic. At the time, those numbers were seen by many as alarmist. The models have proved disturbingly accurate.
Not only did we fail to heed warnings, we seem to have not learned much from our mistakes. The first wave of COVID-19 was murderous, but the second wave was worse.
So what are we doing to avoid a dreaded third wave, fueled by faster-spreading variants?
As Quebec and Ontario variously ease restrictions, hopefully we’re not getting too impatient.
We have vaccines now – good vaccines. One year ago, that was largely unthinkable. And after a bumpy beginning, the vaccine rollout is beginning to pick up steam.
It has injected a lot of hope into the air, and that has been bolstered by declining numbers of cases and deaths in many provinces, especially in long-term care facilities where the pandemic first took root. (As always, Ontario seems to be lagging in the progress department.)
Even Canada’s normally stern Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, could be seen smiling during an appearance on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live. And in a statement reflecting on one year of the pandemic, she said, “this week has been a very good week.”
But the ever-cautious Dr. Tam also warned that a good week is not the same as an end to the pandemic.
At this point, we still have to be cautious. We still have to continue mask-wearing, physical distancing and limiting gatherings and travel. We can’t throw caution to the wind, or succumb to vaccine euphoria.
In much of Canada, spring is just around the corner. As the snow melts, we’re going to see vaccine deliveries go from a trickle to a steady flow, and maybe even a torrent. The goal of vaccinating all Canadians by September is beginning to look not only achievable, but surpassable. We may even be able to dream of starting the next school year with a mass vaccination campaign for children.
But in the meantime, the lessons of COVID-19 remain there for us to learn. Vigilance is required, and speed trumps perfection.
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