Politics

Canada needs to adopt a 'more sustainable' approach to COVID-19, Tam says

Canada's top doctor said today the country needs to find a more "sustainable" way to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and future variants of the virus.

'We do need to get back to some normalcy,' chief public health officer says

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam is seen via videoconference as Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos looks on during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic and the Omicron variant. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Canada's top doctor said today the country needs to find a more "sustainable" way to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and future variants of the virus.

Speaking to reporters at the weekly public health briefing, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said all existing public health policies, including provincial vaccine passports, need to be "re-examined" in the coming weeks — because it's clear now that Canada and the rest of the world will be grappling with this virus for months or years to come.

"What we need to do going forward, as we emerge out of this Omicron wave, is recognize this virus is not going to disappear. We need to be able to address the ongoing presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a more sustainable way," Tam said.

"Further waves will occur. Some will be quite severe and disruptive and we need to be ready for them. But we do need to have longer-term, sustained approaches and capacity-building so we're not in a crisis mode all the time as we fight this virus."

Tam said the Public Health Agency of Canada is talking to its provincial and territorial counterparts to chart a path forward for a country exhausted after two years of enduring some of the most restrictive measures in the developed world.

Together, she said, these agencies will review the current "suite of measures," including severe border restrictions and travel limitations.

"I think the whole concept is, we do need to get back to some normalcy," Tam said.

She said Canada's efforts should be focused on preventing severe cases of COVID through vaccinations rather than stopping all new infections of a highly transmissible virus.

Tam said it's now clear that the primary series of a COVID-19 vaccine — the first two shots of an mRNA vaccine or a viral vector product like the AstraZeneca vaccine — do not protect against an Omicron infection.

But these shots still offer "reasonably good protection" against severe outcomes like hospitalization and death. A third shot provides "superior protection," dramatically reducing the likelihood of severe outcomes, she said. A third dose might also help to prevent an actual infection, Tam added.

Tam said the country's priority should be to deploy as many booster shots as possible. But the immunization campaign has stalled, with just 50 per cent of people eligible for a booster having had that third shot. 

WATCH | Tam outlines how boosters help protect against COVID-19:

Receiving mRNA booster 'superior' protection against COVID-19, Tam says

4 months ago
Duration 3:21
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, highlights the importance of vaccines, specifically booster doses, in the fight against COVID-19.

Tam says she's 'optimistic'

With vaccines widely available and promising therapeutics like Pfizer's Paxlovid starting to roll out, and with natural immunity levels higher in the wake of a massive wave of Omicron cases, Tam said she's "optimistic" that the country can find a better balance between fighting COVID and letting people return to more normal lives.

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, said Canada must guard against public health threats while "not unduly restricting travel and trade."

The top doctors' comments come after some European countries vowed this week to do away with many of the public health measures that have become fixtures of everyday life for the past two years.

Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden are leading the charge. Sweden announced it will do away with vaccine passports, face masks in some public places and limits on social contacts. Neighbouring Denmark has scrapped most restrictions.

"It is time to open Sweden again," said Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson as she announced the restrictions would be removed on Feb. 9.

People queue for a drop-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Stockholm City Terminal station, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. (Anders Wiklund/AP)

Sweden is pushing ahead because its rate of booster vaccinations is very high, which is reducing the strain on the country's health care systems. 80 per cent of all Swedes over the age of 50 have now received three vaccine doses.

In Canada, third dose vaccination rates are lower.

The U.K., which dropped most restrictions months ago, is poised to scrap remaining limits on incoming travel, including arrival testing.

Here at home, Alberta and Saskatchewan have taken the lead among the provinces and territories in signalling they will soon remove most, if not all, remaining COVID-19 public health measures.

PHAC reported last week that the number of new Omicron infections peaked in January.

But the health care system is still under stress — there's usually a lag time between an infection and a severe outcome that requires hospitalization. There are still over 10,000 people being treated in hospital on any given day, with 1,100 of them in ICU. Roughly 140 people are dying each day from the virus.

Ottawa behind on rapid test deliveries

To help in the fight against COVID-19, the federal government promised to deploy 140 million rapid tests to the provinces and territories in the month of January.

Some provinces report those deliveries have been falling short of expectations. Of the 54.3 million rapid tests the federal government promised to Ontario in January, only 17.6 million have been delivered so far.

In Alberta, provincial health authorities have received less than half of the 16 million rapid tests initially promised by the federal government, a spokesperson for the provincial health minister said. To compensate for the shortfall, the provincial government there is buying 14.3 million tests on its own to fill the gap.

"There are more tests arriving in provinces and territories in the next few days," Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said. "We were competing against many other countries with needs and requests."

Experts say an abundance of rapid tests would help fight the spread of the virus by breaking the chain of transmission, allowing COVID-infected people to safely leave isolation and expanding access to Pfizer's oral antiviral, which requires a positive test result before use.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

J.P. Tasker is a senior writer in the CBC's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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