TORONTO — Several Canadian provinces are imposing new restrictions on social gatherings and businesses in a bid to blunt a resurgence of the coronavirus that is hitting more young people with severe illness than before and straining some health-care systems.
Infectious-disease experts say the resurgence is being fueled in part by pandemic fatigue, the premature easing of curbs and the spread of more transmissible and dangerous variants, particularly the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in Britain. And, worryingly, they say a bumpy vaccine rollout is not helping to temper the resurgence.
“We’re very concerned with the variants becoming an increasing proportion of cases,” Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said Thursday, imploring Canadians to not gather in person with those who live in other households.
Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations had fallen sharply and plateaued at a high level since peaking in January, but the trend has reversed, even as vaccinations roll out. The seven-day average of cases rose to 5,086 on Wednesday, up 40% from the week before and 72% from the beginning of the month, according to data from Canada’s public health agency.
Other worrying trends are proliferating. The number of variant cases in the country on Wednesday was 70% higher than the previous week. British Columbia recorded its highest number of daily cases this week. Ontario has never had more coronavirus patients in intensive care.
Across the country, public health officials and infectious-disease experts are reporting that the patients who are hospitalized with more severe illness are younger than during previous surges. The ages of younger people infected varies across the country, but generally they are under age 60.
“As the new variants spread, you will see that COVID-19 is killing faster and younger,” Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of a panel of scientists advising Ontario Premier Doug Ford, said Thursday as he unveiled new modeling for the province. “It’s spreading far more quickly than it was before, and we cannot vaccinate quickly enough to break this third wave.”
Alyson Kelvin, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine Infectious Disease Organization, said the young could be replacing the old in hospitals because many of the elderly who once were the most vulnerable have been vaccinated, the young are essential workers and the variants are causing more severe illness.
“The variants are playing by different rules,” she said.
British Columbia, which had drawn praise for its handling of the pandemic, announced on Monday that it would shut down indoor dining, worship services and indoor group fitness classes for three weeks. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, said variants were fueling the surge.
The Whistler Blackcomb ski resort was also ordered closed. Officials said it has been the site of a “worrisome” cluster of cases of the P. 1 variant, first identified in Brazil. About 83% of cases in Whistler were people ages 20 to 39, according to figures from Vancouver Coastal Health.
Quebec imposed curbs this week in several areas that recently had restrictions eased, including the closure of schools, theaters, gyms, hair salons and nonessential businesses for 10 days. Officials moved a 9:30 p.m. curfew in those areas to 8 p.m. and imposed capacity limits at places of worship.
“People essentially have to stay at home, unless they absolutely need to go to work,” Quebec Premier François Legault said.
In neighboring Ontario, Ford lifted a stay-home order for much of the province in February despite warnings from the panel advising him that it would lead to an increase in cases. On Thursday, he pulled what he called a provincewide “emergency brake,” closing indoor and outdoor dining and imposing capacity limits on businesses, weddings and funerals.
The restrictions are less stringent than the measures that the province implemented in December, which included the closure of nonessential businesses and schools.
Brown, who is also dean of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, noted a bleak state of the province’s strained intensive care units based on what he had heard from front-line health-care workers.
“Whole families are now showing up in intensive care,” he said. “We have to separate families in ambulances and helicopters and move them to other regions that have a spare bed … [One] family ended up spread between three cities in three different hospitals, and all of them died.”
Laveena Munshi, a critical-care physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, said many patients in her hospital’s ICUs are essential workers. She said they are often from low-income backgrounds and worry that they might miss paychecks if they have to stay home to get tested or if they are unwell.
Munshi, who is also part of the panel advising the government, said the new restrictions in Ontario probably will not do much to break those chains of transmission.
“The pandemic has really unmasked the major inequalities that were preexisting in our health-care system,” she said. “A measure like paid sick leave is really something that we would hope that the government would consider employing.”
Canada’s coronavirus trends mirror those elsewhere, including in parts of the United States and in several European countries, where cases also have risen sharply, hospitals are under strain and governments are imposing new restrictions on social gatherings, businesses and schools.
Canada’s vaccine rollout got off to a slow start, impeded in part by a lack of domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity and delays of importing doses from abroad. It has picked up pace in recent weeks, but Canada still lags many peers.
As of April 1, Canada had administered 15.6 doses per 100 people, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data, about one-third the figure in the United States. Less than 2% of people in Canada have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
In Alberta, which delayed moving into the next phase of its reopening plan amid rising case counts, Premier Jason Kenney said this week that “in the race between vaccines and variants of COVID-19, the variants are winning.”
The rollout has had bright spots, particularly in long-term-care homes, which were prioritized for vaccines after having been devastated by outbreaks that were responsible for at least 69% of Canada’s coronavirus deaths, according to a report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
Data from Ontario last month showed that vaccination had reduced the relative risk of infection and death in residents of those facilities by an estimated 89% and 96%, respectively, compared to a control group of the unvaccinated elderly living outside those settings. Other areas reported similar findings.
“It is discouraging to have so few vaccines and such little coverage,” Kelvin said. “But we’re going through a vaccine ramp up right now … so I’m hopeful that we will be able to get some sort of containment in the near future.”