Throughout the country, provinces and territories have been seeing COVID-19’s fourth wave play out differently.
In Alberta and Saskatchewan, health-care systems have been strained to the point where the Canadian Armed Forces have been sent in to help. New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories are also clamping down to calm a recent jump in infections.
Experts say those spikes show a continued need for protective measures as the colder weather settles in across Canada.
“People need to be realistic about the fact that we keep trying to pull things back in terms of public health measures that are easy … like masks,” said Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious diseases expert with Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
“If we can avoid a little bit of that and set people’s expectations that this is going to be into the winter and spring before we can get rid of that … I think people will understand that it’s OK.”
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For weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic in Alberta and Saskatchewan has captured the nation’s attention as hospitals filled up with mostly unvaccinated patients.
But while many Canadians were fixated on those two provinces, infections in New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories began creeping up.
Right now, the Northwest Territories has the highest rate of active cases in the country with 828 per 100,000 residents as of Thursday; Alberta sits in second with 428 cases per 100,000 residents.
Dr. Kami Kandola, chief public health officer for the Northwest Territories, told Global News the region managed to avoid serious waves throughout the pandemic, but after easing protective measures and travel restrictions in the summer, the situation began to change.
She said more than 12,000 travellers visited the region in August, and by mid-month the territory had a superspreader event that kicked off its wave.
Shortly after, the region introduced a territory-wide mask mandate, and the Canadian Rangers and Canadian Red Cross nurses were deployed to help. Masks were required in some areas during previous outbreaks, but never throughout the region. However, they’ve always been recommended.
The Northwest Territories is also administering booster doses to select populations, as officials are seeing breakthrough cases in groups like seniors with other health conditions, Kandola said.
“I want to speak to the other provinces and territories … they’re pretty much eight to 12 weeks behind where we’re going to be,” she said. “Please just don’t rely on vaccines, but rely on all the 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 they’re putting in place circuit-breaker measures in certain areas for two weeks, starting Friday.
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In the summer, New Brunswick lifted nearly all provincial restrictions as case counts were low. Throughout August, the weekly average of new COVID-19 infections crept up to a high of 20.6 a day on Aug. 24, but then dipped down to a low of 11 on Sept. 5.
Afterward, cases shot back up and continued that way through to October. As of Thursday, the weekly average of new infections is 79.1 per day.
“It’s unfortunate and to be honest, unnecessary, to watch so many people getting sick when some measures could be could have been helpful in preventing this, and we knew it,” Barrett said.
“This was not secret knowledge New Brunswick didn’t have.”
The continued need for public health measures in Canada was brought up by the country’s top doctor at the Canadian Public Health Association’s annual conference on Wednesday.
Dr. Theresa Tam said epidemic growth appears to be “stabilizing nationally,” and that she’s “cautiously optimistic” that reinstated public health measures in outbreak areas are starting to slow the spread.
“Unfortunately, the lagging severity trends are still rising nationally with recent hospitalization and critical care admissions primarily involving unvaccinated people,” Tam said.
“This is why it is really important right now to maintain appropriate control measures in heavily impacted areas to help reduce severe illness trends and ease the strain on the health system in the weeks to come.”
When looking at the national data, Canada is beginning to see new cases plateau. Alberta and Saskatchewan are also starting to see dips in new infections, while Ontario and Quebec have been reporting low case counts for weeks.
Dr. Nitin Mohan, an assistant professor in the global health systems program at Western University, said that’s likely because policies like proof of vaccination are working. To date, 88 per cent of eligible Canadians are partially vaccinated while 82 per cent are fully inoculated.
“We’re seeing the effects of our public health measures paying off in certain situations,” he said. “That’s sort of a cautionary benefit of what’s been happening thus far.”
However, as we move through the fall and winter, Mohan urges governments to be “proactive” rather than “reactive.”
“The vaccines allow us to go on the offence for once, and it allows us to be aggressive and allows us to really make an impact on case counts and infection rates and ensuring that we have hospital capacity,” he said.
“You can see the plateauing of the curve, and as we continue to get more folks vaccinated and we keep our public health measures in place throughout the fall season, I think you can envision a world in 2022 where things start normalizing … those signs are there that we’re slowly inching back to where we want to be, but we still have a ways to go.”
— With files from Global News and The Canadian Press.
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