After a difficult five months, it finally feels like the worst is over. That the novel coronavirus pandemic is receding. That maybe we can get back to some semblance of normal and be done with the worst aspects of the lockdown.
The virus that causes COVID-19, however, is not done with us. British Columbia and Manitoba – two provinces that had been successful in the virus fight – have recently reported their highest tally of daily new cases since the pandemic began. This is a long way from over.
The first wave of the virus forced a lot of sacrifices on Canadians. Our collective effort kept the pandemic contained at reasonable levels. Now, as the country carefully reopens – with many still jobless and the unemployment rate at a stark 10.9 per cent – personal vigilance is as important as ever.
On Aug. 7, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, issued a warning. She outlined a “reasonable worst-case scenario” that could see a surge of cases this fall much greater than the peak in late April. Such a scenario could overwhelm the health care system.
The goal, instead, is a “slow burn,” where the virus is contained at the current low levels, and life can continue semi-normally. Canadians are the first line of defence in this effort, Dr. Tam said. Our commitment and personal comportment are the key factors in keeping the pandemic in control.
“What we do now will influence the probability for that fall peak,” she said.
That means physical distancing, washing our hands often and keeping our bubble of close contacts small. It means wearing a mask when distancing isn’t possible, staying home if you have symptoms and avoiding high-risk settings – namely, crowded indoor spaces.
That’s where the virus can run free. Private parties and bars, for example, have sparked clusters of cases in B.C. The province has shut down several bars and, after a longstanding go-soft-and-persuade approach, is looking at the policing of private parties at which public-health rules are ignored.
Asymptomatic transmission among people under 40 is an issue. But while young people and bars have gotten a lot of attention, it’s important to note that, nationally, most outbreaks of COVID-19 are still happening in long-term care homes and seniors’ residences – where the disease is at its deadliest.
The critical goal this fall in every region will be to have fewer than one new daily case per 100,000 people, a level that indicates low community transmission. This is essential for the safe reopening of schools.
Some of the latest data are worrisome. From Aug. 13 to 19, B.C. stood at 1.6 daily new cases per 100,000. Edmonton hit 5.8 from Aug. 10 to 16. At the worst of the pandemic in Ontario, in April, the number there was 3.9. The United States hasn’t been below 14 since late June.
There is good news. On a national basis, the new-case rate in August has been steady at about one per 100,000. Ontario has corralled the virus, and the rate of new infection there is now 0.7 per 100,000.
This coronavirus is persistent, and setbacks such as the one in B.C. are not a surprise. Looking around the world, countries that were among the most successful against the virus in March, April and May – places including South Korea and Australia – are battling new spikes. Australia has put Melbourne on a partial six-week lockdown that includes a curfew between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.
A recent Angus Reid survey suggests that about half of Canadians remain fully vigilant. Another third are inconsistent in their caution, but mostly abide by key measures such as physical distancing and hand washing, even if they don’t always wear masks. But one-fifth of Canadians are “cynical spreaders” – people who are less concerned about the pandemic and take few precautions.
When Dr. Tam outlined the two possible scenarios for this fall – a huge wave, or a slow burn – she said the latter could last into 2022.
That’s a ways off. There are big hopes for a vaccine. But this virus will be with us well into next year. It is our individual actions that, taken together, will keep COVID-19 at bay.
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