Deep in the throes of a severe third wave, Canada, once praised for its pandemic response, is now one of the only countries in the world simultaneously fighting outbreaks of three highly contagious and deadly COVID-19 variants.
Variants make up about two-thirds of all new infections across the country, and as of Thursday, nearly 17,000 COVID-19 cases were caused by mutant strains. To make matters worse, their spread is far outpacing Canada’s slow and uneven vaccine rollout and young and middle-aged adults are getting sicker than ever.
One ICU patient under age 50 is dying every 2.8 days, said Dr. Michael Warner, medical director of critical care at Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital. In British Columbia, the median age for people who’ve contracted a variant is 35. On Wednesday, Quebec logged the death of a 16-year-old—the province’s youngest pandemic victim yet. And SickKids in Toronto, one of the world’s leading hospitals for children, is going to accept adult ICU patients for the first time.
“The variant is a different disease,” Warner tweeted. “We must change our approach or more young people will die.”
According to Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has increased by 13 percent in the past two weeks, while the number of people in ICUs has increased by 37 percent during the same time.
Most common among new variant cases is the B117 U.K. strain, which is about twice as infectious as the original strain and about 1 1/2 times deadlier. The variant first detected in South Africa, B.1351, is still in the low hundreds, but it’s been spotted in eight provinces, and most seriously, in Quebec, where 154 cases have been recorded.
Perhaps most concerning is the P1 variant, linked to a traveller from Brazil. While there are only 1,023 cases so far, the number is more than twice what it was last week.
“Early evidence suggests that the P1 variant may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, making it even more important to control its spread,” Tam said in a statement.
In February, Toronto was perhaps the first city in the world to detect all three variants at once. Today, a similar reality is true for all of Canada.
"There's no other country that's kind of dealing with it as we are—we have all of them emerging at once," Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, told CBC News. "What happens to all three of them in the mix? Which one takes over? Which one is the fittest of the three?"
Canada could have avoided the third wave, but politics got in the way. Instead of implementing measures widely endorsed by doctors and scientists—namely, paid sick leave—provincial leaders have implemented confusing and incomplete lockdowns, often too late and with limited effectiveness. As a result, thousands of workers, many of whom are racialized and low-income, haven’t been able to isolate when infected, and the rest of the population, burned out and fatigued, is struggling to adhere to ever-changing restrictions.
Doctors are repeatedly urging premiers to implement lockdowns and stay-at-home orders as strict as those set last year. To manage the third wave in Alberta, “we would need restrictions the strength of New Zealand, Australia—basically full financially supported lockdown,” Dr. Gosia Gasperowicz told the Globe and Mail. Even as Alberta is suffering one of the worst waves in Canada—B117 cases double in Calgary every week—15 Conservative politicians are condemning the latest restrictions and patio dining and shopping for nonessentials are still permitted, the Globe reported.
Canada's top doctors are also asking Canadians to avoid all nonessential travel, including between provinces, to help curb the spread of the variants. Manitoba is the only province outside of the Atlantic bubble and northern territories to implement travel restrictions that require all Canadians entering the province to isolate for 14 days.
Since the start of the pandemic, Canada has reported 1,028,041 COVID-19 cases and 23,173 deaths.
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