A new federal pandemic portrait warns Canada is on track to have four times more COVID-19 cases by the end of December unless Canadians curtail their contacts and more provinces impose stricter measures.
The Public Health Agency of Canada’s pandemic modelling to be released Friday and obtained by The Globe and Mail shows a rapidly deteriorating situation as provinces vacillate on taking new measures.
At the current rate of spread, the year would end with more than 20,000 cases a day. That is double the number that Ottawa says would put the health system at risk. If Canadians let loose with revelry over the holidays and increase their contacts, that number could grow to 60,000.
Amid the mounting urgency, some provinces took new steps Thursday. British Columbia imposed a mask mandate on public indoor spaces after months of resisting the step, along with a ban on travel, most indoor social gatherings, and other measures. Manitoba adjusted its severe lockdown, including more restrictions on retail and a ban on most private visits. Ontario Premier Doug Ford is expected to announce stronger measures Friday for Toronto and the hard-hit suburb of Peel Region.
Meanwhile Quebec, which has had a ban on most forms of group socializing, entertainment and recreation since Oct. 1, announced it plans to loosen measures for four days over the Christmas holidays to allow gatherings of 10 people.
The state of the pandemic is as varied as the provinces’ restriction plans. While the Atlantic provinces have kept a lid on cases, Ontario and Quebec sit at high, precarious plateaus of around 1,200 new daily cases each. The Western provinces are in a phase of rapid, sometimes runaway growth.
In a rare move, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam and her deputy briefed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well as the federal opposition party leaders on the numbers in a joint meeting Thursday. Mr. Trudeau has tried to persuade premiers to take stronger measures.
Provinces and territories control lockdown powers and the federal government has so far ruled out invoking emergency powers that would give Ottawa control. Despite the rapidly worsening projections, Mr. Trudeau is not expected to unveil any new measures at his Friday press conference, a senior source told The Globe.
The Globe is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
So far 11,186 people have died in Canada from COVID-19. The modelling shows another 1,000 could die by the end of the month.
The message from health officials in the document is a “stronger response is needed now.”
The accuracy of the modelling in Canada has varied but, generally, the dire warnings have sparked new public-health measures and, in turn, the numbers tend toward the lower end of the models.
As infections spike across B.C., Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry announced an official order Thursday that she and other leaders in Western Canada have resisted: ordering everyone across the province to mask up while indoors in public, except when eating or drinking in restaurants.
She also ordered all British Columbians to cancel travel plans unrelated to work over the next two weeks. Dr. Henry said the province’s contact tracers are increasingly unable to link new cases to other known cases or outbreaks. “We’re at the brink with that and that is the area that I’m most concerned about,” she said during a media briefing Thursday.
All social gatherings and in-person religious services are also banned for at least the next two weeks, except for time-sensitive events such as marriages, funerals and baptisms as long as there are 10 attendees or fewer.High-intensity fitness classes are banned, while low-intensity classes are not.
The mask mandate doesn’t extend to inside the classroom because it would be unreasonable to order children to wear masks whilst spending hours at their desks, she added.
Dr. Henry voiced concern that other Canadians continue travelling to the West Coast and asked those planning a short visit to postpone their trip. If they do come, she said these visitors must observe all provincial and regional pandemic-related public-health orders.
The federal models show Manitoba has the highest rates of COVID-19 as well as the highest rates of hospitalizations in Canada.
In the province, where restaurants, gyms and some retail stores have already been forced to close, the provincial government announced another round of restrictions on Thursday that are among the harshest in the country.
As of Friday, people will no longer be allowed to have visitors in their home unless they are providing supports such as child care, tutoring and health services. Anyone who lives alone can have one visitor over to socialize.
Stores are only allowed to sell essential items and must close off sections that offer non-essential goods.
Premier Brian Pallister said COVID-19 infections were straining the province’s health care system, and he chided Manitobans and retailers who have been skirting previous restrictions and ignoring public-health advice.
“Some Manitobans and unfortunately some retailers as well are going against the spirit of those rules, and thus they are creating a greater risk to public safety,” he said.
Over the past five days in Manitoba, 14 per cent of COVID-19 tests have come back positive. The province’s per capita rate of active infections is more than twice Alberta’s and six times higher than Ontario.
Outside of repeating a commitment to making keeping schools open a priority, the Ontario government has not said what options it is considering. “As it’s looking, these measures, they will have to be tough in the hardest-hit areas,” Mr. Ford said Thursday.
Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams would not say on Thursday whether he was recommending new restrictions on retailers, a sector that last faced widespread closings early on in the pandemic.
The Ontario Hospital Association said that 150 COVID-19 patients were now in the province’s intensive care units, a level at which officials have warned could mean some operations would have to be cancelled at some hospitals.
Toronto officials have called for stricter measures and a regional approach. But in a letter to Mr. Ford, officials in York Region pleaded for him to leave them out of any lockdown that shuts down retailers. The region’s chairman and chief executive officer, Wayne Emmerson, and its medical officer of health, Karim Kurji, say they are standing up for businesses that are following public-health rules.
The new measures announced Thursday in places like Manitoba and B.C. are in contrast with Alberta, which has taken a lighter approach to COVID-19 restrictions despite having the third-highest rates of infection in the country.
The province set a record on Thursday with 1,105 new infections as patients fill ICU beds and strain the health care system, but has largely relied on voluntary guidelines.
While federal and provincial public-health officials are sounding alarms, they are going off in local communities too. On Thursday, the University of Saskatchewan said its wastewater testing data shows Saskatoon is facing an imminent surge in cases. If the university’s projection of up to 150 new cases a day comes to pass, it would be just 50 cases short of the number clocked in Montreal Thursday.
With reports from James Keller in Calgary, Laura Stone and Jeff Gray in Toronto, and The Canadian Press
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