Canada is facing “a very serious third wave” of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday, as the country’s most populous province is struggling to respond to rising infections and hospitalisations, and the rapid spread of coronavirus variants.
During a news conference in Ottawa, Trudeau warned that hospitalisations are increasing, intensive care units are filling up, and coronavirus variants are spreading.
“Around the world, countries are facing a very serious third wave of this pandemic and right now so is Canada,” he said.
“Even if the sun is shining and the weather is getting warmer, COVID-19 isn’t done with us yet.”
Canada has reported at least one million cases of COVID-19 and more than 23,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
A recent increase in cases and hospitalisations in several provinces – including the most populous, Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia on the west coast – has prompted calls for stricter public health measures to stem the spread of the virus.
BC health officials have reported cases involving the coronavirus variants first discovered in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.
“We do know that a lot of that is the variant[s], and it does seem like it is a more transmissible strain and it also seems that people do get sicker with some of these variants,” Dr Gerald Da Roza, head of medicine at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, BC, told CBC News.
“Some people say this is the busiest we’ve been in 15 years,” he said.
The Quebec government announced on Tuesday evening that it was tightening restrictions in so-called red zones, including the province’s largest city, Montreal, amid the rise in infections.
Meanwhile, Trudeau told reporters he planned to speak to Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Tuesday.
Ontario has seen a surge in COVID-19 infections in recent weeks and imposed limited lockdown measures over the weekend. On Tuesday, it reported 3,065 new cases as the seven-day average of new infections reached 2,862.
The situation has renewed a push for the province to grant paid sick leave, as many workers deemed essential during the pandemic have been unable to take time off when sick, which advocates say is fuelling the spread of the virus.
Andre Picard, a health columnist at the Globe and Mail newspaper, said the latest modelling data estimates Ontario could see as many as 6,000 new COVID-19 infections daily – up from 2,500 now – and 800 ICU patients by the end of April.
Picard criticised the province’s measures, questioning why “relatively low-risk activities such as outdoor dining are being stopped, while high-risk activities such as large church services can go ahead” and retail stores remain open.
“As the third wave of the pandemic continues to pick up steam, we have seemingly learned nothing from the two previous waves,” he wrote.
Ford’s government has also faced widespread criticism for failing to quickly administer COVID-19 vaccines, despite large supplies and widespread demand.
While Canada’s federal government approves and secures coronavirus vaccines, it is up to each province to set the rules around how the jabs are administered and to whom.
ICU doctors in Ontario last week urged the provincial government to impose stricter restrictions amid a surge in cases [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]
CBC News reported that an average of 72,543 jabs is administered in Ontario daily, despite having the capacity to get as many as 150,000 shots in arms. In total, the province had administered more than 2.6 million jabs as of Monday evening.
In a separate news conference on Tuesday, Ford said the province would expand access to COVID-19 vaccines, targeting people with underlying health conditions and their caregivers, as well as geographic hot spots that have seen rising cases.
He also said Ontario was “finalising plans to vaccinate workers in settings where we’re seeing outbreaks”.
“Last week I said we were in a fight with a new enemy, one that is rapidly evolving. The game is changing and we need to shift our response to stay ahead of this virus,” Ford said.
The spread of variants has prompted concerns from doctors and other healthcare workers, who say younger people are becoming sicker and requiring hospitalisation.
Last week, more than 150 intensive care physicians in Ontario wrote an open letter to the provincial government, urging it to put stricter public health measures in place to stem the spread of the virus – and of the new variants in particular.
“We are seeing younger patients on ventilators – many are parents of school-aged children. We are seeing entire families end up in our ICUs. We are caring for people who have contracted COVID-19 at work, or who have followed all the rules and only gone out for groceries,” they wrote.
“The impact of this virus has been disproportionate, infecting those with highest exposure risk, commonly from lower income and racialized communities. The current measures and framework are not working to contain the spread of this virus.”
The situation also prompted a federation for secondary school teachers on Tuesday to call on Ford to order schools in areas that have seen rising case numbers to shift to remote learning immediately.
The Toronto Star newspaper reported that all schools in Toronto – Canada’s largest city – would be closed as of Wednesday due to the surge in infections.
A similar schools closure was ordered on Monday for the Peel region, an area home to about 1.5 million people west and northwest of Toronto, where students will have access to remote learning for at least two weeks.
“With increasing case counts and the presence of variants of concern, we need to break chains of transmission and keep our schools safe,” Peel Region Medical Officer of Health Dr Lawrence Loh said in a statement.