If Canadians have learned one thing about COVID-19, it’s that you can’t wish it away.
So as much as we’d all like to believe otherwise, there are signs that another wave of the virus is building, at least in some parts of the country, and that not all of the restrictions of the past 20 months can be entirely abandoned. In some provinces, they may have to be toughened again.
Take Ontario, where a summer and early fall marked by great success in curtailing the pandemic have given way to fresh indications of a rise in infections.
Thanks to the disciplined imposition of restrictions on public gatherings and on restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theatres, professional sports and other non-essential businesses, combined with a strong rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the country’s largest province was finally in a position by the end of the summer to start relaxing the rules.
The Ford government did it slowly, and the gradual reopening worked. Schools and universities resumed in early September. Indoor commercial activities resumed in late September, but with capacity limits and a proof-of-vaccination requirement. Thanksgiving came and went, and there was no increase in cases two weeks later, when these things normally show up.
And so at the end of October, Ontario lifted its capacity limits, albeit with the proof-of-vaccination mandate still in place. People jammed into restaurants, gyms and hockey games. The colder weather drove them to spend more time indoors as well.
Right on cue, two weeks later, the province is seeing a rise in cases. The seven-day average of new daily infections jumped to 476 on Monday, up from 371 a week earlier. Ontario is at a crossroads, and it is not alone.
Saskatchewan and Alberta still have by far the highest level of infections and hospitalizations among the provinces. Their case numbers are falling, but they’re struggling to recover from the rash decision to abruptly drop all restrictions, including mask mandates, at the start of the summer.
British Columbia is close to its highest-ever level of hospitalizations. New Brunswick had to implement a two week “circuit breaker” at the end of October, after cases spiked. Yukon is being hit by dramatic increases in COVID-19 spread and is bringing in mask and proof-of-vaccination mandates.
Europe, too, is seeing a surge in cases. Denmark, which lifted all restrictions in September, is now bringing some back, along with vaccine passports, after its daily case count jumped from 200 to 2,300 over two months.
Can Canada avoid a winter that looks like the earlier waves, with a big jump in cases and hospitalizations? Yes – if the provinces do the right things.
First and foremost, this country has to reinvigorate its stalled vaccination campaign. In Ontario, for example, 85 per cent of those 12 years of age and over are fully inoculated – but that still leaves roughly 1.5 million eligible Ontarians without a single jab.
These are the people responsible for keeping the pandemic alive. Data from the Ontario Science Table show that being unvaccinated makes you more than five times more likely to catch COVID-19, and 26 times more likely to wind up in intensive care.
Tragically, Canada’s daily pace of new first doses has been falling steadily since October, and is now at its lowest level since the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines. Roughly eight million Canadians are still without a shot. A bit more than half are children who are still too young; the remainder are eligible but hesitant or hostile.
Vaccines are the best weapon in the war on COVID-19, but so long as there’s a substantial unvaccinated population, they can’t get the job done alone. There have been enough examples, Denmark being the latest, to prove that.
As such, people still need to wear masks in all public indoor settings. Vaccine passports must be required and properly enforced. Public venues need to improve their ventilation systems, an under-discussed subject. And provinces like Ontario need to be prepared to constantly adjust their rules, including bringing back capacity limits in non-essential businesses when and where case numbers warrant it – as unpopular as that will be.
Every Canadian wants the pandemic to be over. The only way to achieve that is by not making the mistake of acting like it is, and then hoping for the best.
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