April is the cruelest month.
After a long pandemic winter, it was hoped that this would be the month to mark the start of Canada’s postpandemic spring. Instead, April opens with a heavy snow warning, winds picking up and the clouds gathering, in what threatens to turn into this country’s worst storm yet.
After a March that came in like a lamb and went out like a lion, Canada is now well and truly in COVID-19′s third wave. In fact, the country is effectively in a new pandemic, as new variants displace our reliable old enemy.
The variants are more contagious and more dangerous – Ontario’s Science Table recently found they carry a 63 per cent higher risk of hospitalization, 103 per cent higher risk of intensive care unit (ICU) admission and 56 per cent greater risk of death.
A more infectious disease meeting lowered public-health measures has led to a rebound in COVID-19 infections.
After falling steadily since January, the number of British Columbians in hospital is up nearly 50 per cent over the past five weeks. In Alberta, case numbers fell by more than 80 per cent between early December and early March – but the number of daily infections has since doubled.
And in Ontario, the number of people in ICU is now higher than in January, at the summit of the second wave.
In the race between variants and vaccines, the past month has seen Canada losing ground. The pace of vaccinations picked up, but the virus moved even faster.
In the long run, vaccines are going to beat the virus. And with Ottawa expecting to receive tens of millions of doses before Canada Day, the long run isn’t that far away.
But in the short run, Canada doesn’t yet have enough vaccines to win. That means that most provinces have no option but to reintroduce public-health measures in April that they spent March whittling down.
Spring isn’t cancelled. But in much of the country, it’s going to have to be postponed.
On Monday morning, citing “the start of exponential growth” in infections, B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry pointed to “gathering indoors” as “the greatest risk to all of us right now.” Indoor dining, indoor group fitness and indoor religious services are all suspended for at least three weeks.
An illustration of the dangers comes from Quebec City, where this week 68 cases of COVID-19 were linked to one gym, with infected patrons contributing to eight other workplace outbreaks. On Wednesday, Quebec Premier François Legault temporarily closed schools, shut non-essential businesses and imposed a curfew in two regions of the province.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has strongly hinted that he will announce new restrictions on Thursday, before the Easter long weekend. Whatever action he takes will arrive late. Ontario has until now put the accent on figuring out how to lower restrictions, including planning to allow hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlours to reopen on April 12 in areas where they are currently closed, such as Toronto.
But right now, it’s difficult to see how Ontario – or most of the country outside of Atlantic Canada – has any choice but to reverse course and heavily restrict most indoor gatherings.
There also has to be a renewed campaign urging people to avoid getting together with anyone who is not in their household. Having family over for Easter is asking for trouble.
At the same time, Ontario in particular has to focus testing and vaccinations on people most likely to be part of a super-spreader event: those working in big, close-quarters essential workplaces.
The factories and warehouses of Peel Region, for example, employ thousands of people who have to go work. But once everyone in these workplaces is vaccinated, mass infection events there will go from high probability to extremely unlikely.
Just look at the good news from long-term care homes. According to a recent study by Ontario’s Science Table, vaccinations reduced death among long-term care residents by an estimated 96 per cent after eight weeks.
And there’s the reason for optimism. As of Wednesday, 13 per cent of Canadians had received at least one shot. Over the next three months, Ottawa expects to take delivery of at least 22 million vaccine doses, and possibly far more, which would be enough to vaccinate nearly every adult by Canada Day.
Spring is postponed. But spring is definitely coming.
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