TORONTO — For any Canadians who spent the summer ignoring news about the novel coronavirus, now might be a good time to pay attention.
In the past two weeks, British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba have all set or come close to new daily records for the highest number of new COVID-19 cases reported in each province. On Saturday, both Ontario and Quebec recorded their largest daily figures in a month or more.
In other words, all of Canada’s five most populous provinces are being reminded that COVID-19 is still a threat – even though this is the time of year when viral diseases are least likely to be active.
“Respiratory viruses should not be circulating at all in July and August. We, with doing nothing at all, should be seeing no COVID – but we’re doing a lot, and we’re still seeing COVID,” Dr. Colin Furness, a infection control epidemiologist, said Sunday on CTV News Channel.
“That gives you a sense that the virulence of this virus is there, and it’s going to come back hard.”
But while the records and big increases may seem concerning on their own, experts warn that it’s best not to read too much into the “ongoing blips” of any day’s individual total.
“It’s important for us not to be too concerned about short-term trends, but to look at the bigger picture,” Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, told CTV News Channel on Sunday.
MORE THAN 5,000 ACTIVE CASES
One way to get a sense of that bigger picture is to look at trends around the number of active COVID-19 cases. Because patients are often considered active for a week or more, these numbers are less prone to the wild swings of one-day totals.
With 367 new cases of COVID-19 reported across Canada on Saturday and only 145 new recoveries logged, Canada’s total number of active cases moved past the 5,000 mark for the first time in nearly three weeks, according to CTV News records.
However, saying the number of active cases is at its highest level in a few weeks may be misleading. Quebec has occasionally made major adjustments to its recovery figures with little explanation, including by announcing more than 23,000 new recoveries on July 16.
If those 23,000 cases were to be removed from the historical data on active cases, then Canada would not have had more than 5,000 active cases since June – until Saturday.
Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist based in Mississauga, Ont., told CTV News Channel on Saturday that he does not see the overall state of COVID-19 activity in Canada as a significant concern, particularly because hospitalization levels have remained steady.
“It is concerning what we’re seeing out there, but in the grand scheme of things it is still overall low community transmission,” he said.
Breaking the numbers down by province and territory, though, it’s clear that the situation is not at all the same in different parts of the country.
A SECOND WAVE IN THE WEST?
Measured by active cases, B.C.’s first wave of COVID-19 peaked on April 28, when authorities knew of 717 patients in the province.
By June, that number was below 200. It stayed there until early July. The number of active cases started to slowly rise at that point, however – and in the past three weeks, the increase has been anything but slow.
On Aug. 10, B.C. passed 400 active cases. Two days later, it passed 500. Two days after that, it passed 600.
By Aug. 21, there were 824 active cases of COVID-19 in the province – more than there ever had been before. And still the number kept rising, hitting 1,014 on Aug 23. As of Friday, the last day the province publicized data, there were 982 active cases.
B.C. is one of two provinces where there are currently more active cases of COVID-19 than there were at any point during the first wave of the pandemic.
The other is Manitoba, which originally topped out just under 200 in early April. Two months after that, its active case count was down to the single digits.
But there have been big increases more recently, starting in July and continuing through August. Manitoba has not reported a decrease in the number of active cases since Aug. 19. As of Sunday, the number sat at 462 – more than double the spring peak.
Saskatchewan was on similar ground last month. The province has twice reported more than 300 active cases of COVID-19 – on back-to-back days in late July. Since then, though, the caseload has shrunk, with fewer than 100 active cases reported every day for the past week.
Although Alberta reported some of its highest single-day new case counts since April, the number of active cases there has remained well below the province’s spring peak.
For the past four weeks, Alberta has hovered between 1,000 and 1,200 active cases. That’s a lot more than the 328 active cases the province bottomed out at on June 5, but it’s far fewer than the more than 3,000 it was tracking in late April and early May.
STABILIZATION IN THE EAST AND NORTH
Whatever is happening in the West does not seem to be affecting the coronavirus situation in Central Canada, Atlantic Canada and the territories.
While Western provinces were setting new records and seeing escalating case counts, Ontario was hitting some of its lowest patient numbers since the earliest days of the pandemic. On Aug. 9, that province reported fewer than 1,000 active cases for the first time since March; the number then stayed below 1,000 for 12 days.
There has been some escalation over the past two weeks, however. There were 904 active cases of COVID-19 in Ontario on Aug. 16, 1,010 on Aug. 23, and 1,181 on Sunday.
Quebec’s numbers are a little harder to judge, because of the two major adjustments to the province’s number of recoveries, but the active case load there appears to have stopped falling and stabilized between 1,200 and 1,300 over the past week and a half.
The numbers are far smaller in Atlantic Canada, where earlier in the summer all four provinces went through periods without a single active case, only for the virus to pop back up.
As of Sunday, there were five active cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, four in New Brunswick, three in Prince Edward Island and one in Newfoundland and Labrador.
There are no active cases in any of the territories; the last of the 20 known total cases was reported in Yukon on Aug. 7.
Coronavirus activity is expected to ramp up in Canada as summer gives way to fall and the weather cools, driving Canadians indoors where it is easier for the virus to spread.
There are fears that this could be exacerbated by the return of children to classrooms, which is already underway in some parts of the country and will have taken place at most schools within two weeks.
Already in Quebec, approximately 20 teachers have been ordered to isolate after two educators at one high school tested positive for COVID-19. The tests occurred on a preparation day before students were allowed in.
Oughton said that although most French-language high schools in Quebec have resumed classroom instruction, it is too soon for the extent of COVID-19 spread in schools to show up in the province’s numbers.
Another concern is what will happen when COVID-19 overlaps with the traditional winter influenza season. Because the diseases caused by the two viruses present similarly, it is possible that flu symptoms could be enough for quarantines to be ordered or schools to be shut down for fear of an outbreak.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of false alarms,” Oughton said.
The Public Health Agency of Canada’s recent report of an “exceptionally low” amount of flu activity this summer provides some hope here, though. So does data from countries in the Southern Hemisphere, where flu season is already underway and record low levels of influenza are being detected.
Taken together, Oughton said, these statistics show that distancing and other measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 are having the same effect on influenza – reducing its transmission rate and reducing the likelihood of widespread “false alarms.”
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