New COVID-19 modelling shows pandemic resurgence in Canada rapidly worsening

OTTAWA — The spread of COVID-19 continues to surge rapidly across the country, with tens of thousands of new cases and thousands of additional deaths forecasted in the coming weeks.

New national modelling released on Friday shows that Canada is on track to see up to 796,630 total COVID-19 cases and 19,630 deaths by Jan. 24 and federal officials are urging swift action to avoid Canadian doctors having to make “impossible choices,” such as who gets an ICU bed.

The short-term forecast shows a “continuation of rapid growth” and if Canadians continue to have the same amount of close contact with others, the epidemic will continue to resurge.

“We need to keep reducing in-person contacts. For the moment that’s the only way to get these numbers down,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a Rideau Cottage address on Friday.

“We’ve seen the kinds of impossible choices hospitals in other countries had to face when they become overwhelmed. Deciding who gets an ICU bed and who doesn’t, well that’s not where we want to be. So please keep following public health guidelines and stay safe,” Trudeau said.  

Unless the extent and severity of restrictions are further intensified, Canada will not be able to suppress the current rate of spread, warned Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam on Friday.

“We have yet to see the kind of widespread and sustained declines in daily case counts that would indicate we’re bringing the pandemic under control nationally.” 

While the pandemic situation is not uniform across the country, overall there has been a steady increase in hospitalizations in provinces with high infection rates since October, with an average of more than 4,700 people being treated in hospital on any given day, with 875 in ICUs.

Once someone is hospitalized with COVID-19, they tend to stay around 16 days, though it’s often longer for those with severe illness. This has strained the capacity of Canada’s health-care system, and has exhausted health-care workers, Tam said.

In most of the country there is now widespread community transmission and a growing number of outbreaks in long-term care facilities and other high-risk settings like correctional facilities and shelters.

Trudeau said that the increase in outbreaks in long-term care homes is “tragic,” and Canada’s elderly and most vulnerable deserve better. 

COVID-19 deaths are also “steadily rising,” and the daily death totals may soon exceed the levels seen during the first peak of the virus last spring. The daily case counts have already far exceeded the peak of the first wave.

Seniors continue to represent the highest percentage of COVID-19 deaths, though to date 70 deaths have been reported in adults 20 to 39 years of age.

In an interview on CTV News Channel speaking about the severity of the virus in Ontario which is now under a province-wide stay-at-home order, infectious disease expert Dr. Abdu Sharkawy said that “we’re in serious trouble.”

“That’s a lot of people lost, that’s a lot of families that will never be together again,” he said, citing the 100 deaths reported in the province on Friday.

“There’s a lot of work to be done here, there’s still a lot of stress going on in our ICUs, in our emergency rooms, and it’s not tenable so we’ve got a lot more work to do to drive those numbers down,” said Sharkawy. 

QUICK, STRONG ACTION NEEDED

The Public Health Agency of Canada is calling for “quick, strong and sustained measures” to interrupt the current growth trajectory this country is currently charting.

Asked if new COVID-19 variants are being included in these modelling figures, Tam said no but separate modelling is being done on various scenarios depending on the ongoing proliferation of new, more transmissible strains being detected. 

The last time national modelling was presented a month ago, the forecast was that Canada was on a “rapid growth trajectory” and was not at all flattening the curve of the second wave of cases in this country. Friday’s modelling shows the virus’ spread is still on this rapid growth path.

While some provinces had started to show a downward trajectory at the end of December, new cases rose again after the holidays. Health officials said this was likely due to people having more contacts around Christmas and other celebrations, but also likely because people held off from getting tested until early in the new year.

During the final modelling presentation of 2020, Canada’s top public health officials expressed hope that the then-recent introduction of more stringent measures in some provinces would make an impact in reducing transmission over the next few weeks.

However, Friday’s modelling shows Canada continues to see a “sharp increase” in daily COVD-19 cases since December.

“We need to flatten the curve once again,” Tam said.

VACCINE WON’T BE ENOUGH

While the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine rollout is positive news, offering initial additional protection for those on Canada’s front line and to the most vulnerable, Tam warned that it will still be months before most Canadians get access to shots and it’s essential that the health-care system has the capacity to administer them on a mass scale when the time comes.

That will be challenging if the virus continues to amplify and more Canadians are hospitalized.

“Public health measures work. The vaccine in the short term is not going to make any difference to the transmission,” Tam said. 

“As vaccine supply increases, COVID-19 vaccine implementation will be one of the most complex undertakings in the history of public health. We know that Canadians are tired and that the winter months will be very challenging as we continue to grapple with high rates of infection in many areas of the country,” Tam said.

“Often the end of the race is the hardest part, but it won’t last forever. For now, we must redouble our efforts at this pivotal moment and get this done.”

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