Even with strict containment measures, COVID-19 could claim 22,000 lives, federal officials project

Federal health officials are saying there could be nearly 32,000 cases of COVID-19 and between 500 and 700 deaths in Canada by April 16 — and anywhere from 11,000 to 22,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic, even with relatively strong control measures in place.

That projection emerged Thursday morning as officials released modelling on how the COVID-19 crisis could unfold in the country, and suggested that containment measures, such as physical distancing and quarantines, could be in place for months to come.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau conceded that it won’t be easy to continue those measures because the first wave of the virus could last until the summer, with other outbreaks erupting after that.

Trudeau said he could not predict how long those measures will be required, but said some experts estimate it will take six to eight months to develop a vaccine, while others suggest it could take a year to 18 months.

He pleaded with Canadians to step up to meet what he called the “challenge of the generation” and said Canada is at a “fork in the road” between the best and worst outcomes.

“This will be the new normal until a vaccine is developed,” he said.

Longer-term projections look at scenarios involving strong controls (one to 10 per cent of the population infected, called the “green zone” scenario), weaker controls (25 to 50 per cent of the population infected, the “blue zone”) and no controls at all (70-80 per cent infected, the “red zone”).

If about 2.5 to five per cent of the population became infected, that would mean between 934,000 and 1.9 million cases. That would also mean up to 22,000 deaths and between 23,000 and 46,000 ICU admissions.

If no containment measures had been taken (which was not the case in Canada), officials said there would have been about 300,000 deaths.

Officials said the caseload in Canada is doubling every three to five days, which is considered a relatively positive trajectory compared to other countries. Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said that is in large part because of lessons learned from other countries about how strong control measures can limit the spread of the virus.

Tam said she is hopeful that Canada can stay in the green zone and keep infections and deaths relatively low.

‘Prevent every death that we can’

She warned that measures that can create “hardships” are critical to keeping ICU admissions and deaths as low as possible.

“We can’t prevent every death, but we must prevent every death that we can,” she said.

Tam said it’s too early to know how close Canada is nationally to seeing a “peak” in transmission. But she cautioned that even as we start to see a decline in transmissions, Canadians will have to stay the course with preventative measures to keep the pandemic from re-igniting.

“What we do together now will buy us more time to further understand the virus and to develop treatments and vaccines,” she said.

“We are the authors of our fate. Together we can plank the epidemic curve.”

Tam said that if 2.5 per cent of the population were infected, it would inflict strains on the health care system.

Tam said officials will monitor the evolution of the outbreak and its trajectory, and “recalibrate” guidance for Canadians based on how the curve is bending.

“It is a pretty dynamic process,” she said.

Officials are working to improve testing and lab capacity to detect and trace cases.

The analysis of how many people could become infected, get sick or die from the virus comes just before the long holiday weekend.

Tam said the models are “imperfect” but they can help people understand the state of the pandemic and where it might go, along with the effect of public health measures on the transmission of the virus.

Repeated advice

Trudeau has repeatedly told Canadians that how fast and far the virus spreads will depend largely on how stringently Canadians follow public health advice, including physical distancing, hand-washing and staying home whenever possible.

Several provinces have already released projections. Ontario estimates the number of deaths in the province could hit 3,000 to 15,000 over the course of the pandemic, which could last up to two years.

Tam has cautioned that models that try to predict how many people could become infected and die from the novel coronavirus are not “crystal balls” and that it’s important to focus on what is happening in real time.

How projections actually play out depends largely on actions taken by individuals and governments, she said.


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