Canada is struggling to make headway in the fight against COVID-19, as vaccinations have so far failed to control the rise in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths caused by the most contagious variants of the virus that are now spreading across the country.
But some experts predict that there is hope on the horizon, and the change in vaccination strategy already underway to target the virus’s critical points could begin to yield gains within four to six weeks.
“We could see a slow and cautious reopening,” said Caroline Colijn, a professor at Simon Fraser University who holds a Canada Research Chair 150 in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health.
She warned that even if the strategy starts to bear fruit, a sufficient number of people will still be vulnerable to the virus so that some restrictions are still needed.
“It won’t be summer, back to normal,” she said.
According to COVID-19 Tracker Canada, the number of new cases registered in the country each week has tripled since the beginning of March, growing to more than 60,000 in the week of April 12. In the same period, the number of deaths each week increased from about 240 to 320.
This week at a glance
Hospitalizations have also continued to increase and provincial health systems are at risk of becoming overburdened. As of Friday, almost 4,400 people were in the hospital with COVID-19, more than 1,300 of them in intensive care.
These gloomy numbers come even when Canada has dramatically accelerated its vaccine distribution.
More than a quarter of Canadians, or 27.6 percent, received at least one injection of the COVID-19 vaccine. In early March, the number was less than 5%. More than 11.3 million doses have been administered.
The initial phase of Canada’s vaccination program focused on inoculating those who were most at risk of serious outcomes if they contracted the virus, such as long-term residents and older citizens.
Colijn said the strategy saved lives, but officials are now realizing that, in order to delay transmission, they need to focus on vaccinating those most likely to spread the virus, such as essential workers and younger residents in hard-hit neighborhoods.
Earlier this month, the Ontario government announced that residents 18 and older in 114 hot spot communities would be eligible for vaccines. British Columbia is prioritizing people aged 40 and over in high-transmission neighborhoods.
Colijn said his modeling shows that the targeted strategy is expected to “noticeably lower” transmission rates from mid-May to the end of June, depending on the province. In that case, the provincial authorities could safely begin to reverse the restrictions imposed at the beginning of the third wave, such as requests to stay at home, bans on indoor meals and strict customer limits at companies.
Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Center, said that any progress will depend on ensuring that there are sufficient doses to reach at-risk populations quickly and that more dangerous new variants do not emerge.
“We need a lot more vaccine to vaccinate more people more quickly, and the strategy needs to evolve very quickly to address the critical points. . . to have a chance to succeed, ”he said.
As of Friday, there were about 1.2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada since the start of the pandemic, and 23,825 people have died.