Health

Coronavirus in Canada: These charts show how our fight to 'flatten the curve' is going

Health officials warn that a COVID-19 vaccine will not be silver bullet and current public health measures could stay in place for several years

Note: Data in the charts last updated on Aug. 7 at 10 a.m. EDT.

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its fifth month in Canada, there is good news and bad news.

First, the bad news. In her first briefing after most of the nation enjoyed a mid-summer long weekend, Dr. Theresa Tam tempered growing expectations that one of the 160-plus COVID-19 vaccines currently being tested may soon end the worldwide pandemic. “We can’t at this stage just put all of our focus [on a vaccine] in the hopes that this is the silver bullet solution,” said Canada’s chief public health officer. Not only do experts have to determine that a vaccine that passes its trials is safe and effective, but, right now, there’s no way to know how effective such a vaccine would be or the amount of immunity it would provide. In addition, with the entire world wanting such a treatment, scaling up production and then distributing it is enormously challenging. “It’s likely that there won’t be enough vaccines for the population, so there’ll be prioritization,” she said.

Even if a vaccine arrives, Tam believes it should be considered just one more layer of protection. She’s advising Canadians that they will have to keep up the current public health measures—including wearing masks, physically distancing and frequently washing hands—for a lot longer than anyone ever thought possible when the nation initially locked down in March. “We’re going to have to manage this pandemic certainly over the next year,” said Tam, “but certainly [we are] planning for the longer term of the next two to three years during which the vaccine may play a role but we don’t know yet.”

Tam’s caution about putting too many of one’s hopes in a “silver bullet” vaccine was echoed by the World Health Organization, whose director-general also warned on Tuesday, Aug. 4 that, although he hopes there will be an effective vaccine, everyone should realize it may never materialize.

All the precautions and changes we’ve been dealing with for the past few months may be with us for years and years to come. And that could radically reshape our society and economy in ways few can even contemplate at this moment.

That messaging comes as some provinces continue to report an upswing in new cases. Quebec, which had reduced its tally to 500-odd cases a week in early July is now regularly posting around 1,000 per week. (A study of blood donations suggests that 120,000 Quebeckers may have been infected with the coronavirus, double the confirmed tally of 60,000.) Saskatchewan is also struggling: as of Aug. 4, its daily tally of new cases stands at 18.3 per million population, nearly double the national tally of 10.5 cases and well above next door Manitoba, which has just 3.9 per million, on a seven-day rolling average.

Now, the good news. And there truly is some positive news, though with another “silver bullet” reference from a public health official. Alberta, which had seen triple-digit numbers of new cases most days since the middle of July, has since been able to slow that increase. The past two weeks saw the province add 1,171 new cases, or around 10 per cent of its cumulative tally. Still, that’s down 20 per cent from the previous two weeks, in which Alberta added 1,456 new cases. It may still have the worst per-capita rate of new cases in the nation, but the number is falling, down from an average of around 28 daily cases per million population in late July to just above 20.

That positive news is tempered by a continuing outbreak at Edmonton’s Good Samaritan Southgate Care Centre, which is now the province’s deadliest. Since it began in mid-June, some 24 residents have died. In total, the number of deaths has been rising in Alberta, up by 30 in the last two weeks of July.

“There is no silver bullet that will make any setting completely risk-free, and no region or community that is free from the virus,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health. “There is no one perfect way to respond to COVID-19. Each path has advantages and challenges. The most important thing is to continue to learn. I will continue to watch the emerging evidence and, as always, adapt my recommendations as needed in the days and weeks to come.”

As Alberta’s Hinshaw and other officials across the nation focus on how to reopen shuttered educational systems, everyone is keeping a close watch on the daily count of new cases. And there, as well, is hope. After a few weeks of having the daily tally of new cases across Canada regularly nudging the 500-case-mark, the average is subsiding, down to the 350 range in recent days.

Ontario, one of the epicentres of the pandemic in the springtime, is now reporting fewer new cases per capita than British Columbia, which has been able to keep its own number of new cases to a relatively low level throughout the spring and summer. In the week ending on Aug. 4, Ontario reported only 100 new cases a day; in the first week of June, that daily average was 387 cases.

Within Canada’s largest province, the source of new cases is also shifting. Toronto, which had the most cases of any region, has slashed its numbers in recent weeks. In early June, the city was reporting more than 1,225 cases a week. Now, that’s down to around 125. In contrast, Ottawa, which reported 18 new cases a week in early June, is now adding more than 150 per week. As social media was flooded with reports of dense crowds lining up to get into bars, Dr. Vera Etches, the city’s medical officer of health, mulled introducing a reservation system for bars if the COVID-19 numbers didn’t improve.

 

Then there are the four provinces on the East Coast, which are enjoying self-isolating within their Atlantic Bubble. In the past two weeks, the region reported just seven cases: three in Newfoundland, and four in Nova Scotia. As well, only one death was reported (in Nova Scotia) since the end of June.