Doctors call for cross-country circuit-breaker lockdown to stamp out COVID-19 spread

A number of doctors and researchers are calling for strict countrywide restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and more contagious coronavirus variants, saying that vaccines aren’t enough.

Dr. Anand Kumar, a Winnipeg intensive care physician and infectious disease specialist, signed his name to an open letter published in Macleans magazine on Friday calling for a “maximum suppression strategy” to tamp down the third wave surge that’s pummelling the country.

“Although we’re doing reasonably well with vaccination, we’re not doing so well that we can rule out a fourth wave if we ease up on restrictions early, and that would be one of the big concerns,” he said on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday.

“The other big concern, quite frankly, is that every time we’ve made assumptions with this virus … we’ve gotten burned. It’s thrown us a lot of curveballs.”

Dr. Dick Zoutman, a professor in the school of medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., also signed the open letter.

He says there’s plenty of time before everyone is fully vaccinated for the third wave to do “an enormous amount of damage” across the country.

WATCH | Dr. Anand Kumar on what Canada needs to do to avert a fourth wave:

Dr. Anand Kumar, a critical care physician at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, talks to CBC’s chief political correspondent, Rosemary Barton, about an open letter he signed with other health experts calling for stronger national policies to overpower COVID-19. 6:15

A future curveball could also be a vaccine-resistant variant of concern, Kumar said.

In order to avoid a point in time where hospitals are overrun and health-care workers can’t keep up, steps must be taken, he says, including limiting contacts.

Kumar and Zoutman are among 28 physicians and scientists from across Canada — including 10 Manitobans — with backgrounds in infectious diseases, critical care medicine and other health disciplines, who are calling for a shutdown of non-essential businesses and borders as well as strict gathering rules.

Kumar says a circuit-breaker lockdown would end when each province is able to control small “local brush fires” with localized responses, rather than an “unending roller-coaster of half measures”, which is what he calls partial provincial lockdowns.

Those partial lockdowns have been a common strategy in many provinces throughout the pandemic, said Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, a medical microbiologist and physician at Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital and another of the open letter’s signatories.

But that strategy is reactive, usually in response to strained hospital capacity — which means by the time stricter measures are introduced, there’s already a large amount of community spread, he said.

Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens is a medical microbiologist and physician at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg. He’s one of 28 physicians and scientists from across Canada calling for a shutdown of non-essential businesses and borders as well as strict gathering rules. (Philippe Lagacé-Wiens/Facebook)

“[By then] it is difficult to get transmission under control in the community,” Lagacé-Wiens said. 

“It’s difficult to contact trace, it’s difficult to identify all new infections, which of course leads to unknown transmission in the community, which is much more difficult to control and requires prolonged lockdowns.”

Lives could have been saved

If Canada had taken a more aggressive stance against the pandemic, aiming toward maximum suppression of COVID-19 infections early on, more than 21,000 lives could have been preserved, the letter says

Zoutman credits Atlantic Canada — as well as Australia, New Zealand, China, South Korea and Taiwan — for setting an example the rest of the country should have followed.

“This is very, very unfortunate and very sad because these methods have shown themselves in our own country to be very effective,” he said.

COVID patients from overcrowded hospitals in southern Ontario have started to make their way to intensive care units in the north. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Now, in his own backyard, hospitals and ICUs are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

Zoutman is worried that certain patients may not be able to receive the maximum benefit of critical care because there isn’t the capacity to help them..

“That’s a horrible and gut-wrenching, distressing place for any health-care professional to be and to make those kinds of difficult decisions where families will have very little recourse, because if there’s no ventilators and there’s no capacity in the ICU or to to provide this care, then decisions will have to be made based on the most ethical grounds,” he said.

Pain for long-term gain

This call for a circuit-breaker comes as hundreds have taken to the streets in Manitoba and across the country to call for an end to restrictions.

Zoutman says pandemic fatigue is understandable given the multiple waves and lockdowns.

“We’ve all had more than enough of this, and that’s the problem — our lockdowns have not been sufficiently stringent to give us the results that we want,” he said.

Kumar thinks people will find the approach more palatable if it’s communicated to them well.

“The idea if you take a certain amount of pain now for long-term or intermediate-term gain, I think that’s easy to sell. I don’t think we’ve tried to sell what we’re doing very well,” he said.

Far surpassing pandemic fatigue is the sheer exhaustion faced by health-care workers, Kumar says.

“Everybody is just tired to our bones.”