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Nurses administer rapid COVID-19 tests at a construction site in Toronto on Feb. 18, 2021.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Current public-health measures aimed at controlling COVID-19 will not be enough to contain faster spreading variants of the disease, leaving Canada with the prospect of a third, more intense, wave this spring, according to new federal modelling.

If provinces and territories keep the same level of public-health restrictions or further loosen them, projections released Friday by the Public Health Agency of Canada show the new variants could trigger a third wave of the pandemic before Canada’s mass vaccination campaign starts in April.

The downcast outlook was made as the federal agency data showed significant progress in tamping down the second wave of COVID-19. Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam warned those efforts will be undone if the variants are allowed to take off. Canada will avoid a third wave only if more aggressive physical distancing rules are put in place, according to the latest federal models.

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“With more contagious variants spreading, further lifting of the public-health measures will cause the epidemic to resurge rapidly and strongly,” Dr. Tam said. She made the warning after Ontario eased measures outside of the Greater Toronto Area, and Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba have lifted restrictions and reopened many businesses.

“Current community-based public-health measures will be insufficient to control rapid growth and resurgence,” Dr. Tam said.

On Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government said it would keep a stay-at-home order for Toronto and Peel Region in place, following a request from the local medical officers of health. That order will remain in effect until at least March 8. It will also continue in the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit, where a variant of COVID-19 sparked an outbreak in an apartment building.

The public-health agency released two sets of models: one that showed the trajectory of the pandemic if the variants don’t take off and another that showed what will happen if they do. Dr. Tam said the latter model is Canada’s new baseline and a “current reality.”

Long-term modelling that accounts for

the spread of new variants shows possible

third wave of COVID-19

Reported daily cases up to Feb. 16

20,000

Projection

15,000

10,000

5,000

0

March

2020

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

Jan.

2021

March

If more public- health measures are lifted, a third wave could surge rapidly

Current public- health measures will be insufficient and a third wave is expected

Stronger public- health measures and individual precautions could prevent

a third wave

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: public health

agency of canada

Long-term modelling that accounts for the spread of

new variants shows possible third wave of COVID-19

Reported daily cases up to Feb. 16

20,000

Projection

15,000

10,000

5,000

0

March

2020

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

Jan.

2021

March

If more public- health measures are lifted, a third wave could surge rapidly

Current public- health measures will be insufficient and a third wave is expected

Stronger public-health measures and individual precautions could prevent a third wave

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: public health

agency of canada

Long-term modelling that accounts for the spread

of new variants shows possible third wave of COVID-19

Reported daily cases up to Feb. 16

20,000

Projection

15,000

10,000

5,000

0

March

2020

May

July

Sept.

Nov.

Jan.

2021

March

If more public-health mea-

sures are lifted, a third

wave could surge rapidly

Current public-health mea-

sures will be insufficient

and a third wave is expected

Stronger public-health measures

and individual precautions could

prevent a third wave

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: public health agency of canada

Over the past week the country has averaged 2,886 daily new cases. The projections with the new variants show that if the current restrictions remain in place, then Canada could see 10,000 cases a day by the end of March. If public-health measures are lifted, the modelling shows a near vertical climb in case counts and Canada could be on track for more than 20,000 daily new cases by mid-March.

“With more contagious variants spreading, further lifting of the public-health measures will cause the epidemic to resurge rapidly and strongly,” Dr. Tam said.

The model shows that if restrictions are enhanced and individuals follow strict physical distancing, then even with the spread of the new variants Canada could successfully stamp out the second wave and avoid a third resurgence.

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The variants of concern were first identified in Britain, South Africa and Brazil. In Canada there are more than 660 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, linked to Britain. Dr. Tam said it not only spreads faster, but evidence also shows it has a higher risk of severe outcomes such as hospitalizations and death.

The modelling works on the assumption that the new variants are 50-per-cent more transmissible than the current dominant form of COVID-19 in Canada. That is also the assumption that Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States is using for its modelling.

Already outbreaks linked to the variant have had a deadly impact and disrupted daily life. In Barrie, Ont., 70 residents in a long-term care home died from the disease. In Newfoundland and Labrador, a variant-fuelled outbreak forced the province to delay its elections.

Dr. Tam and deputy chief public health officer Howard Njoo cautioned that the models show options for what could happen and are not a crystal ball. They repeatedly urged the provinces and territories to tread carefully when choosing to ease restrictions. She said provinces need to ensure their screening programs, testing and contact tracing are robust before lifting any restrictions.

“We’ve been saying all along that if we ease measures too soon the epidemic will resurge even stronger, but with highly contagious variants in our midst, the threat to uncontrolled epidemic growth is significantly elevated,” Dr. Tam said. “This is why measures must be stronger, stricter and sustained long enough to suppress rapid epidemic growth.”

She said Canada’s vaccination campaign has not yet protected enough people and that even countries that have more successfully doled out the jabs have had to put in place stricter rules to control the variants.

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