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Nurse Kevin Sagun with Humber River Hospital draws a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine before administering it at a LOFT community housing complex in Toronto, March 26.

COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images

A year ago, when the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was always a given that more waves would follow behind it.

The second wave last fall smashed Canada harder than the first, with more deaths and many more cases. But by earlier this month, it seemed to have receded. Cases were down by close to two-thirds, and deaths had fallen by about 80 per cent. As well, the first shipments of vaccines had gone to where they were needed most – such as those living in long-term care homes.

The second wave, however, never fully receded. The low in cases was still higher than the peak of the first wave. Cases of variants, more easily transmissible and more dangerous, ticked higher. Yet Canada’s big provinces moved to reopen, rather than choosing continued caution. The third wave was brewing.

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And now it may soon hit Canada with full force. Look at British Columbia. It’s the first province in the real grip of a third wave. New cases, as of Monday, surpassed B.C.’s second-wave peak of November. There has been a lack of testing, not enough data on variants, and B.C.’s most recent moves had been to loosen restrictions.

New COVID-19 restrictions announced in B.C. amid rising cases

On Monday the province hit the brakes. For the next three weeks, indoor seating at restaurants and bars will be closed for the first time since last spring, among other measures. “We cannot blow it now,” Premier John Horgan said.

Over all, the national number of active cases is up about 50 per cent since early March, as counts in several other provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec – also shoot higher.

This looming crisis is of Canada’s own making. It’s the result of political choices to reopen the economy and to resist closings. Few provinces pursued a strategy of driving the virus to nominal levels – like Nova Scotia did, where on Monday there were zero new cases.

The consequence of those choices may be yet another surge and more economic pain. For the moment, it’s not certain how the third wave will play out. Deaths are way down, likely thanks to vaccines, though they are still higher than last summer. Hospitalizations are up and intensive-care cases are increasing. There are also worrisome reports of rapid transmission among younger people and more cases of younger people in hospital.

In parts of Europe, such as France and Germany, the third wave is hitting hard, although there, too, deaths are lower than they were during the worst of the second wave. There is also uncertainty about how to battle the third wave. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed for a hard national lockdown over Easter. But the next day she changed her mind, calling the idea a “mistake.”

In Canada, it looked for a moment at the start of March like the arrival of vaccines, combined with lockdown measures, would make Easter a cause for celebration. But now the virus is resurgent.

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More bad news came Monday, when the National Advisory Committee on Immunization said the AstraZeneca vaccine – 1.5 million doses are set to arrive from the United States this week – should not be used in people under 55, because of rare cases of fatal blood clots that have occurred in Europe.

All the provinces and territories agreed to the pause on Monday. Their decisions come barely 10 days after Canada and others, like the European Union, looked at this issue and concluded the benefits of AstraZeneca far outweigh any risk.

Canadians whipsawed by these inconsistent messages will be understandably confused and wary, even if science supports the rationale for the pause. AstraZeneca was safe last week, and now it’s not?

While perhaps unavoidable, this confusion isn’t helpful. Last week, Statistics Canada data showed that only about three in four Canadians are “very or somewhat willing” to get vaccinated. That leaves almost 25 per cent of people reluctant to get, or refusing to get, inoculated.

In Ontario and Quebec, there are vaccine appointments going unfilled, and officials are urging older people to sign up. “We have lots of appointments available,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said.

The only way to stop the third wave from cresting across Canada is for every province to focus on driving down case counts, and for Canadians to get vaccinated as quickly as possible. Right now, neither is happening.

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