COVID-19 Update

Ending the Year in the Red Zone and Under Lockdown

Total cases of COVID-19 in Canada as of December 19, 2020 -- click to enlarge. (PHAC)

The COVID-19 pandemic is generally worsening across the country. The total case count has now passed half a million as records continue to be set in various provinces for numbers of new daily cases, amidst a situation where neo-liberal governments continue to equivocate on providing the necessary health and safety measures in health care facilities and long-term care homes, or are outright attacking the workers and the public health care system.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam issued a statement on December 19, in which she gave an overview of the COVID-19 pandemic across the country. She explained:

"Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 495,346 cases of COVID-19, including 14,040 deaths reported in Canada; these cumulative numbers tell us about the overall burden of COVID-19 illness to date. Though many areas continue to experience high infection rates, it is important to remember that the vast majority of Canadians remain susceptible to COVID-19. This is why it is important for everyone to continue with individual precautions to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.

"At this time, there are 75,695 active cases across the country. The latest national-level data indicate daily averages of 6,653 new cases (Dec 11-17). COVID-19 is spreading among people of all ages, with high infection rates across all age groups. However, nationally, infection rates remain highest among those aged 80 years and older who are at highest risk for severe outcomes.

"Likewise, outbreaks continue to occur in high-risk populations and communities, including hospitals and long-term care homes, congregate living settings, Indigenous communities, and more remote areas of the country. The downstream impacts of weeks and months of elevated disease activity continues to be seen in still rising numbers of severe illness and death, significant disruptions to health services and ongoing challenges for areas not adequately equipped to manage complex medical emergencies.

"Nationally, hospitalizations and deaths, which tend to lag behind increased disease activity by one to several weeks are still increasing. Provincial and territorial data indicate that an average of 3,194 people with COVID-19 were being treated in Canadian hospitals each day during the most recent seven-day period (Dec 11-17), including 650 of whom were being treated in intensive care units. During the same period, there were an average of 115 COVID-19-related deaths reported daily. This situation continues to burden local health care resources, particularly in areas where infection rates are highest. These impacts affect everyone, as the health care workforce and health system bear a heavy strain, important elective medical procedures are delayed or postponed, adding to pre-existing backlogs.

"This week, we welcomed more exciting news on the vaccine front, from the first Canadians being vaccinated against COVID-19 to the prospect of early delivery of doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, pending regulatory approval assuring quality, safety and effectiveness.

"Even as we move into this hopeful next chapter of Canada's COVID-19 response, our collective efforts to bend the curve remain crucial to our success. The latest longer range forecasting, using a model from Simon Fraser University, forecasts that we could have over 8,000 cases daily by the beginning of January 2021. While lower than last week, these numbers are still significant and put us on a trajectory for a strong resurgence for the next two months. This underscores that the partnership between public health and the public at large is still vitally important to bringing down the infection rate. Our continued efforts are not only helping public health authorities to quickly interrupt chains of transmission, they also assist the broader health workforce to plan for and roll out one of the most complex immunization campaigns in Canada's history.

"While we continue to prepare the way for widespread and lasting control of COVID-19 through safe and effective vaccines, Canadians are urged to continue with individual practices that keep us and our families safer: stay home/self-isolate if you have any symptoms, follow local public health advice and maintain individual protective practices of physical distancing, hand, cough and surface hygiene and wearing a face mask as appropriate (including when you cannot consistently keep two metres apart from people outside your immediate household)."

Opioid Crisis Exacerbated by Pandemic

Dr. Tam in remarks on December 18 highlighted how the opioid and drug overdose crisis has worsened during the pandemic:

"National data released this week on opioid and stimulant-related harms is a tragic reminder of the broader impacts of this pandemic, including the worsening of the ongoing overdose crisis. From April to June, there were 1,628 opioid toxicity deaths in Canada, which is the highest number recorded in a single quarter since national surveillance began in 2016. Now more than ever, we must work together to curb this devastating trend, never forgetting that each and every opioid toxicity death represents a life cut short and a person whose loss is grieved by family, friends and community.

"The overdose crisis, and substance use more broadly, is a highly complex health and social issue. We know, however, that there are interventions that can and do save lives. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were seeing early signs that opioid toxicity deaths were declining in parts of the country. Sadly, as the latest data show, we are now seeing a loss in these hard fought gains, as COVID-19 and associated public health measures have impacted the toxic illegal drug supply as well as the accessibility of substance use supports.

"We can do more to save lives -- both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond -- and must redouble our collective efforts to expand the availability of evidence-based harm reduction services -- like supervised consumption sites and take home naloxone programs -- and of treatment options, including safer, pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic illegal drug supply.


As concerns COVID-19 vaccinations, the Public Health Agency of Canada in a statement to CBC News stated that "Based on current data, by the end of Q3 2021, Canada projects having a sufficient number of doses to be able to offer a vaccination to every Canadian." This date is based on the fact that the Canadian government has signed purchase agreements with seven different pharmaceutical companies for up to 418 million doses of the various shots under development. This is said to be hedging bets in case some vaccines do not pan out as well as to give the possibility of donations to other countries. These companies are Pfizer-BioNTech (U.S.-Germany), Moderna (U.S.), Medicago (Canada), University of Oxford-AstraZeneca (UK-Sweden), Johnson & Johnson (U.S.), Novavax (U.S.) and Sanofi-GlaxoSmithKline (France-Britain).

Traditionally, anti-viral vaccines are based on weakened versions of a virus that is used to stimulate an immune response to the actual virus and thus convey immunity to infection from the live virus. However, the Pfizer vaccine (the first to be approved for use in Canada) and the Moderna vaccine instead carry the instructions for making a distinct spike protein on the outside of the coronavirus in the form of single-stranded ribonucleic acid (RNA). The spike protein is then produced within the human body to generate an immune response.

The vaccines being tested by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are somewhat similar, except the coronavirus spike protein is spliced into another virus called an adenovirus in the form of double-stranded deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This method was used to produce a vaccine for Ebola. Techniques based on RNA and DNA are said to have had a relatively shorter development time, as they are based on genetic sequencing of COVID-19 that was provided by China in January.

The Novavax and Sanofi-GlaxoSmithKline vaccines contain a coronavirus protein to stimulate an immune response.

The Medicago vaccine uses "living plants as bioreactors to produce non-infectious versions of viruses (called Virus-like Particles, or VLPs)."

Presently, Canada has acquired 4 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which requires recipients to receive two doses 21 days apart for maximum efficacy. The first doses were administered on December 14, to those deemed to be in priority groups. Every province is responsible for their own vaccine deployments. Preliminary guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) says that key populations to prioritize for vaccination are "those at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19" due to "advanced age" and "other high-risk conditions (to be defined as the evidence base evolves)." The NACI also advises prioritizing vaccinations for "those most likely to transmit COVID-19 to those at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 and workers essential to maintaining the COVID-19 response," as well as "those contributing to the maintenance of other essential services for the functioning of society" and also "those whose living or working conditions put them at elevated risk of infection and where infection could have disproportionate consequences, including Indigenous communities."

(With files from Public Health Canada, New York Times, Novavax, Medicago.)

This article was published in

Volume 50 Number 49 - December 19, 2020

Article Link:
COVID-19 Update: Ending the Year in the Red Zone and Under Lockdown


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