Health officials in Ontario and Manitoba are pointing to recent Thanksgiving celebrations as they continue to see high numbers of new COVID-19 infections despite strengthening restrictions in hot spot areas.
In Ontario, where new cases reached a peak over the weekend, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the holiday took place around the same time as the province imposed stricter health measures in three regions, including Toronto. The tighter rules were applied to a fourth region more than a week later.
While the number of new daily infections is starting to decrease in some areas, such as Ottawa, in the other regions, “we’re not seeing that happen quite as quickly as we’d like to,” Elliott said.
“We’re also seeing some of the impacts from Thanksgiving several weeks ago, so we’ve got that adding to the increase in community transmission, but we are also starting to see some of the numbers in some of the modified areas,” she said.
Elliott’s comments came a day after Ontario — one of the two provinces hit hardest by the pandemic — recorded 1,000 new cases, its highest single-day increase since the start of the global health crisis. The number of new infections dropped to 851 new cases on Monday, a level comparable to last week.
Of those, 281 cases were in Toronto, 215 in Peel Region, 90 in York Region and 76 in Ottawa.
Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, said the current case counts reflect infections that were acquired about two weeks ago so it’s likely Thanksgiving played a role, but it’s not possible to say how significant an impact it had.
“Certainly the timing lines up appropriately,” she said.
Meanwhile, Manitoba’s top doctor urged residents Monday to stop gathering in large groups, saying many of the 100 new cases reported by the province that day were linked to Thanksgiving festivities.
The vast majority of the new infections were in Winnipeg, which was placed under enhanced restrictions following a recent spike in cases.
So far, there have been 4,349 cases in Manitoba, 2,117 of which are active, and 55 deaths.
“The trajectory is in the wrong direction and if we continue at this pace, we are likely going to see over 5,000 cases by the end of this week,” said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer.
Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, said it’s challenging to know exactly what was driving the case numbers over the last few days.
The timing suggests Thanksgiving played a role “but it’s probably not the sole factor,” he said. “It certainly would be somewhat reasonable to think that part of that rise in cases was related to Thanksgiving, or people getting together for whatever reason.”
At the same time, it would take at least two weeks to see any change as a result of new restrictions, and case counts would be expected to continue rising in that time, he said.
The next few weeks will be “very telling” when it comes to how the second wave is playing out, he added.
Either way, health officials should begin to prepare the public for Christmas — a holiday that involves even more gatherings and travel than Thanksgiving, he said.
“No one wants to say publicly that it’s unlikely that the numbers will be down in many of the hot spots in Canada in a sufficient enough way to say it’s OK to get together for Christmas.”
Alberta also imposed a 15-person limit on social gatherings in its two biggest cities on Monday, as cases in Calgary and Edmonton continue to climb.
The province reported 364 cases on Friday, 572 on Saturday and 506 on Sunday, along with seven additional deaths over the weekend.
Unlike Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec, the Alberta government is not toughening rules for restaurants and bars because few infections seem to be connected to those venues.
In Quebec, Premier Francois Legault told a news conference in Montreal that the province’s rates of new, daily infections and deaths linked to the virus were too high to ease restrictions that have been in place since Oct. 1.
The partial lockdown on regions in maximum pandemic-alert zones was imposed until Oct. 28. But Legault said the forced closure of gyms, bars, restaurant dining areas and entertainment venues in the province’s biggest cities — such as Montreal and Quebec City — will be extended until Nov. 23.
“We have stabilized the number of new cases but we still have a big challenge in front of us,” he said.
The province, which has been leading the country in cumulative cases, surpassed 100,000 confirmed infections over the weekend. Quebec reported 808 new cases on Monday and 10 more deaths.
“We can’t continue to have 800-1,000 cases per day,” Legault said.
Earlier in the day, a coalition of gyms and other fitness-related businesses vowed to reopen Thursday regardless of the health orders.
Legault rejected their threat outright. He said those businesses won’t reopen and owners of gyms and other companies who violate lockdown orders risk being fined.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press