Canada's chief public health officer says that in spite of the challenges posed by the current wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are good reasons for optimism in the latest federal modelling data.
Speaking at a technical briefing on the data today, Dr. Theresa Tam said the virus's reproductive number (Rt) has fallen below one for the first time since mid-July.
That means new infections are on a downward trajectory in Canada for the first time in months.
"However, Rt has only just fallen below one nationally, and still may be at or above one in some areas," Tam said. "To bring the epidemic under control, Rt needs to be maintained consistently below one."
"The efforts we've made give us reason for optimism," Tam said. "But we must remain mindful for the need for continued caution in the months ahead."
Over the past week, Canada saw an average of 3,745 new cases of COVID-19 per day. That's less than half of the more than 8,000 new infections per day predicted by earlier modelling presented in September, Tam said.
Tam said the downward trend is evidence that widespread vaccination and public health measures are keeping the pandemic under control, even with the spread of the more infectious delta variant. Over 80 per cent of those eligible have now received at least one dose of a vaccine in every province and territory.
While rates of infection are heading in the right direction, severe illness due to COVID-19 continues to be an issue. There are 2,514 people in hospital, including 769 in intensive care units.
There are 41,549 active cases in Canada.
Gaps in infections, vaccinations
Tam also pointed out the high degree of regional variation in COVID-19 infections and severe illnesses. The data show that the Prairie provinces have both higher infection rates and lower rates of vaccination.
In Saskatchewan and Alberta, 75 per cent of those 12 and up are fully vaccinated — a rate considerably lower than in other provinces.
"Over the past month, lessons have been hard learned where measures have been relaxed too much or too soon, and especially where vaccination coverage remains low," she said.
According to the data, the number of new cases is 10 times higher and the rate of severe illness is 36 times higher among the unvaccinated.
Rates of vaccination are also considerably lower among young people, which has left "a significant protection gap," Tam said.
Among the 18-29 age group, just 72 per cent have received two doses of a vaccine.
Tam urged Canadians to continue following local public health directives and public health measures — including masking indoors and avoiding crowds — over the Thanksgiving weekend.
She added that she has no plans currently to attend an in-person gathering.
"Previously, we have seen surges in cases after these holiday events," Tam said. "So this year, with the vaccine on board, I think we should be on a better, more solid footing."
Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief public health officer, said he will attend an in-person Thanksgiving gathering where everyone attending will be vaccinated.
Njoo recommended keeping any events restricted to immediate family members. But if you find yourself in the presence of an unvaccinated relative, he said, you could speak with them about the issue.
"If, let's say, a family member is not vaccinated, you should politely explain your situation and your discomfort level," Njoo said.
"If they choose not to be vaccinated, that's their choice but there are consequences, in terms of even family dynamics and others feeling safe about getting together."