Canada faces rising COVID-19 wave as health restrictions ease

A man in an N95 respirator sits among maskless fans during the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers NBA game in Toronto on March 24.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Much of Canada is facing another wave of COVID-19 just as authorities are easing measures designed to contain the spread of the virus, encouraged by a brief decline in cases and relatively high vaccination rates.

Public health experts urge caution as levels of COVID-19 in wastewater rise. Political analysts say the upcoming elections in Ontario and Quebec, the most populous of Canada’s 10 provinces, could deter politicians from reintroducing pandemic health measures.

Meanwhile, fewer tests make it difficult for individuals to do the personal risk assessments that politicians are pushing for.

Most provinces have lifted their mask mandates. Where in Canada is the rule still in effect?

Most Canadians supported the restrictions and other pandemic measures in place for the past two years, although a vocal minority opposed them, leading to a three-week protest in early 2022 that paralyzed Ottawa and multiple international border crossings. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency powers to end the unrest.

While Ontario and Quebec premiers remain favorites to be re-elected despite divided opposition, both risk alienating some voters if they impose new measures, polls say.

“I don’t think it’s ever too late or untenable to tighten things up again. But the political calculation around it, the closer you get to the election, that will be weighed more heavily,” said Shachi Kurl, chairman of pollster Angus Reid.

Ontario, which has elections on June 2, dropped its mask mandate in most locations last week. Quebec, which goes to the polls in October, plans to do so next month.

Alberta, where Prime Minister Jason Kenny faces an internal leadership review amid backlash in his United Conservative Party over COVID-19 measures and other issues in the Western Canadian province, on March 1, ended pandemic restrictions, including a mask mandate.

However, masks are still required in some environments, including public transportation, in all three provinces.

While a return to strict COVID-19 restrictions may make scientific sense, it would be “politically extremely damaging” to Quebec Prime Minister Francois Legault, said Philippe Fournier, creator of the election projection site 338Canada.com.

‘Premature’ mask movement

Most Canadians have received their COVID-19 vaccination, with over 90% of the population in some provinces having had at least a first dose. But that figure drops significantly for booster shots.

Canada’s Covid-19 death rate, at about 100 per 100,000 people, is about a third of the US rate, but more than four times that of Australia.

Spokespersons for the Ontario and Quebec ministries of health said they are monitoring any increase in the virus. A spokesman for Alberta’s Department of Health said the measures are in line with those in other jurisdictions and Albertans can “assess their own risk.”

The three provinces have previously denied that their easing of restrictions was politically motivated.

Ontario’s science advisory table is revising its model of how bad the current wave could be as people spend more time indoors, exposed, with those outside their household, said Peter Juni, the table’s scientific director.

He said the lifting of Ontario’s mask mandate was “premature.”

Masking has proved hugely popular in Canada – 73% of those polled in an Angus Reid poll earlier this month supported it, while 64% said they supported vaccine passports.

British Columbia’s human rights commissioner Kasari Govender called on her province to reinstate the mask mandate it recently ended.

Rejean Leclerc, the chairman of a Quebec union representing nurses, called on the province not to relinquish its mask mandate on April 15, warning that an increase in the number of COVID-19 patients could affect an already fragile hospital system. .

COVID-19 cases have risen elsewhere, with infections in Asia crossing 100 million this week amid a resurgence dominated by Omicron’s BA.2 subvariant.

Quebec’s top public health official said this week the number of healthcare workers who are sick as a result of COVID-19 has risen 60% in a week, to about 2.5% of the healthcare workforce.

Legault’s center-right Avenir Quebec (CAQ) coalition, which won the October elections from four rival parties, is under pressure from the right from an anti-mandatory conservative.

Ontario’s progressive conservative Prime Minister Doug Ford, meanwhile, faces a balancing act, Kurl said.

“You want to look like you’re making good, reasonable decisions while not irritating important parts of your voter base,” Angus Reid’s president said.

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