The House

Chris Hall: Health expert warns reopening provincial economies will be 'tricky'

Some provinces will begin reopening their economies next week, a move one public health expert described as a delicate experiment — because so little is known about how many people are immune, or how long any immunity to the COVID-19 virus might last.

Dr. Catherine Hankins co-chairs government's new COVID-19 Immunity Task Force

Ontario Premier Doug Ford released a small list of companies on Friday that can reopen next week under strict safety conditions. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Some provinces will begin reopening their economies next week, a move one public health expert described as a delicate experiment — because so little is known about how many people are immune to the COVID-19 virus, or how long such immunity might last.

"This is all going to be tricky," said Dr. Catherine Hankins, who co-chairs the leadership group of the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force — part of the federal government's anti-pandemic research strategy.

"These are natural experiments, in a way, that are going on around everywhere in the world, where we're seeing countries try to open up and see what happens."

The task force is just beginning its work on blood and antibody testing to better understand immunity to COVID-19. It's critical research as some people begin returning to work six weeks into the economic shutdown imposed by the pandemic.

Hankins is a professor of public and population health at McGill University in Montreal, one of the cities hardest-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Hankins said it would be better if questions about immunity and the creation of an effective vaccine could be answered before the restrictions are lifted.

The co-chair of the leadership group behind Canada's new COVID-19 Immunity Task Force discusses where the country stands on protecting against the virus. 8:52

Reopening plans vary

But the economic impact of the pandemic has been severe and many premiers believe a careful, staged resumption of normal life can now begin.

"We have to find the middle ground that continues to keep our case numbers low and keep Saskatchewan people safe, while at the same time allowing for businesses to reopen and ... people to get back to work," Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said in announcing the phased-in lifting of restrictions.

The plans vary. Quebec, for example, is the only province allowing elementary schools to reopen. Children outside Montreal will return to classes May 11. Schools in the city will resume a week later.

Quebec's English School Boards Association (QESBA) has questioned the plan on health grounds and says it will decide when it's safe to reopen its facilities.

Some Ontario businesses to reopen next week

Ontario has been more cautious. Premier Doug Ford presented a small list of companies that can reopen next week under strict safety conditions.

"We have the critical pieces we need in place," Ford said Friday. "We have a framework and targets. We have clear sector-specific health guidelines. And with these critical pillars in place, we are in the position now to look at what we can start to open up safely."

Businesses being permitted to open must show that their employees and customers can maintain proper physical distancing and provide contact-free services, or they must conduct their work outside in isolation.

Hankins isn't criticising any of the provinces — but she says it would be far better if people could be tested for antibodies before they return to work.

Dr. Catherine Hankins is a professor of public and population health at McGill University in Montreal, one of the cities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"These are the kinds of questions we really would have loved to have known, as we now are champing at the bit and trying to figure out how do we open up the economy safely, and what sectors go first, and how this can best happen," she told CBC's The House.

"Unfortunately, we don't have that information yet, and obviously we're working as fast as we can to develop the tests that we can use to try to determine what populations have been most affected and have a level of immunity, we hope."

Vaccine likely a year or more away

The federal and provincial governments have agreed to a set of guidelines intended to minimize the risk of a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, starting with increased testing for the virus and hiring more people to trace infected individuals' contacts.

Hankins said all of that work will be critical, in large part because the development of an effective vaccine is likely a year or more away.

"I think the timeline of 12 to 18 months is a realistic timeline," she said. "Everything is being fast-tracked and that's good. But we also want to balance out getting an effective vaccine, and not getting one that's going to have a lot of side effects or problems associated with it."

Some political leaders, including Quebec Premier Francois Legault, have pushed the idea of "herd immunity" as part of the rationale for easing isolation restrictions and closures.

COVID-19 pandemic may not be 'one of a kind'

The idea behind herd immunity is that exposing people in a measured way to the virus would help the population develop a natural immunity to COVID-19.

That idea is not universally accepted. In any event, said Hankins, Canada is a long way from that kind of broad exposure. For example, New York City — one of the epicentres of the virus — has a 22 per cent exposure rate, far below the 50 to 70 per cent rate needed to prevent another wave of the virus.

A bigger fear, said Hankins, is that this pandemic won't be unique for very long. Work needs to continue to ensure that lessons learned in responding to COVID-19 are in place for the next major outbreak, she said.

"I do have a sense that … there are potential other pandemics coming down the line, and we need to be making sure we're documenting all the lessons we're learning this time around to make sure that we can stop it earlier next time."

Also on this week's show:

  • Public Safety Minister Bill Blair talks about the Liberal government's ban on assault-style weapons.
  • Liberal MP Greg Fergus discusses representing a Quebec riding along the Ontario border as both provinces sketch out their plans to reopen. 
  • Three students share whether they're covered by the government's emergency aid legislation and what the pandemic means for their education.
  • Two mental health experts dive into the toll COVID-19 is taking on Canadians' minds.

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