Canadians need to be “realistic” about the need for public health measures as the country heads into fall and winter, doctors say as COVID-19 cases rise in some provinces.
Across the country, provinces and territories have seen the fourth wave of COVID-19 play out differently.
In Alberta and Saskatchewan, health care systems have been strained to the point where Canada’s armed forces have been sent in to help. New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories are also closing in to calm the recent surge in infections.
Experts say those spikes show a continued need for protective measures as cold weather settles across Canada.
An infectious disease specialist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Dr. Lisa Barrett said, “People need to be realistic about the fact that we’re trying to pull things back in terms of public health measures that are easier … like masks.”
“If we can avoid this a little bit and set people’s expectations that it will be in the winter and spring before we can get rid of it… I think people will understand that it’s okay.”
For weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic in Alberta and Saskatchewan has caught the nation’s attention as hospitals are filled with mostly unvaccinated patients.
But while many Canadians in those two provinces were cured, infections began to rise in New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories.
Right now, the Northwest Territories have Highest rate of active cases in the country with 828 per 100,000 residents on Thursday; Alberta ranks second with 428 cases per 100,000 residents.
Dr Kami Kandola, chief public health officer for the Northwest Territories, told Granthshala News that the region had managed to avoid severe waves throughout the pandemic, but after the easing of protective measures and travel restrictions over the summer, the situation began to change.
She said more than 12,000 travelers visited the area in August, and by the middle of the month a superspreader event had hit the region that kicked off its wave.
Shortly after, the region introduced an area-wide mask mandate, and Canadian Rangers and Canadian Red Cross nurses were deployed to help. Masks were required in some areas during previous outbreaks, but never in the entire region. However, they have always been recommended.
Kandola said the Northwest region is also giving booster doses to select populations, as officials are seeing success cases in groups such as senior citizens with other health conditions.
“I want to talk to other provinces and territories … they are eight to 12 weeks behind where we are going,” she said. “Please don’t just rely on vaccines, but rely on all other public health measures that have worked in the past, especially for the dead of winter.”
Meanwhile, in New Brunswick, public health officials announced Wednesday that they are taking circuit-breaker measures in some areas for two weeks starting Friday.
Over the summer, New Brunswick lifted almost all provincial restrictions because the number of cases remained low. Throughout August, the weekly average of new COVID-19 infections rose to a daily high of 20.6 on August 24, but then fell to a low of 11 on September 5.
Later, the cases spiked back and continued like this till October. As of Thursday, the weekly average of new infections is 79.1 per day.
“It’s unfortunate and to be honest, unnecessary, to see so many people getting sick when some measure could have been helpful to stop it, and we knew it,” Barrett said.
“It wasn’t secret knowledge that New Brunswick didn’t have.”
The continuing need for public health measures in Canada was brought out on Wednesday by the nation’s top physician at the annual conference of the Public Health Association of Canada.
Dr Theresa Tam said the growth of the epidemic appeared to be “steady nationally”, and she is “cautiously optimistic” that restoring public health measures in outbreak areas is starting to slow the spread.
“Unfortunately, with recent hospitalizations and critical care involving predominantly illiterate people, the trend in severity of lag at the national level is still increasing,” Tam said.
“That’s why it’s really important to maintain proper containment measures in heavily affected areas to help slow down the trend of severe disease and reduce the strain on the health system in the coming weeks.”
Looking at the national figures, Canada is beginning to see a plateau of new cases. Alberta and Saskatchewan are also starting to see a decline in new infections, while Ontario and Quebec are reporting fewer cases for weeks.
Dr. Nitin Mohan, assistant professor of the Granthshala Health Systems Program at Western University, said this may be because policies such as proof of vaccination are working. To date, 88 percent of eligible Canadians have been partially vaccinated while 82 percent have been fully vaccinated.
“We are seeing the impact of our public health measures in certain situations,” he said. “It’s a cautionary advantage of what’s happening so far.”