Newfoundland and Labrador is reporting a sharp downturn in daily COVID-19 cases, with seven new ones confirmed Tuesday as fears over a rapidly spreading variant of the virus linger on the island and across Canada.
The new cases follow a total of 18 confirmed cases in the previous two days, a marked decline from a daily count that shot up to 100 late last week.
The province had been a model of low coronavirus numbers until the mutation first identified in the United Kingdom and known as the B.1.1.7 variant flared up suddenly over the past week and a half. That prompted lockdowns and caused the province's chief electoral officers to delay a general election, with ballots now to be submitted entirely by post.
The tumult sparked by the outbreak brought criticism the all-mail-in format risks leaving voters behind, from residents of remote Labrador communities without internet access to anyone without a fixed address.
As Newfoundland shuts down, Ontario is opening back up.
The province lifted a stay-at-home order in most regions Tuesday, allowing restaurants, gyms and hair salons to unlock their doors in some areas, depending on the colour-coded restriction level.
The move comes days after health experts warned a third wave could be looming unless another lockdown goes into effect.
During a briefing on COVID-19 projections last week, Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of Ontario's science advisory group, said that while cases have been decreasing, more contagious variants are spreading and currently account for five to 10 per cent of all cases.
That will likely cause cases to increase again by late February, Brown said, which is why strong public health measures like a stay-home order and vaccinations of vulnerable groups are critical.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford defended ending the stay-home order, saying the government won't hesitate to use an "emergency brake" to swiftly move regions back into lockdown if COVID-19 cases spike.
"We aren't reopening the province," Ford said Tuesday as Ontario's legislature began its spring session.
"We're transitioning. We're transitioning into the framework that was laid out by the health team ... and we won't hesitate to pull on the brakes at any given time."
Ontario reported 904 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday as well as 964 cases that were not reported on the Family Day holiday Monday.
The figures, while higher than daily counts during the first wave, continue a downward trend since mid-January, when daily new cases peaked at around 4,000.
In Quebec City, Premier Francois Legault announced a slight loosening of restrictions beginning Feb. 26, when the province heads into its March break.
Cinemas will be allowed to reopen, he said, and swimming pools and arenas can open to groups of two or family bubbles. Legault said he wanted to give parents and children options for activities during the school break.
However, he said Montreal and Quebec City will remain at the highest pandemic-alert level, meaning an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew will remain in effect. Quebec's daily count of COVID-19 infections continued to trend downward on Tuesday, with 669 new cases and 20 additional deaths.
In Saskatchewan, Premier Scott Moe announced an extension of its health order, set to expire Friday, into March.
Officials in Manitoba, which has one confirmed case of the U.K. variant, said the variant had been ruled out in suspected cases in Pauingassi First Nation.
In Alberta, the province's top doctor said the variant has not been detected in outbreaks at oilsands work camps in the north. Dr. Deena Hinshaw said there are no known links to the oilsands cases and workers from Newfoundland who have travelled home.
And in B.C., provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said 60 cases involving variants of concern have been confirmed. They include 40 cases of the variant first identified in the United Kingdom, 19 of the one first detected in South Africa and one of the strain first found in Nigeria.
The province also extended the state of emergency, which gives health and emergency management officials extraordinary powers to support the pandemic response, to March 2.
Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to decline across the country, but that more transmissible variants pose a renewed threat.
“These variants have been smouldering in the background and gaining fuel that now threatens to flare up into a rapidly spreading blaze," Tam said.
The B.1.1.7 variant, now present in all 10 provinces, is up to 540 cases. Another 33 cases of a variant first identified in South Africa and one case of the mutation first spotted in Brazil have been confirmed, she said.
Newfoundland stands as a "testament to how quickly thing can change" when highly contagious variants slip into a region, she said.
“This is a setback for sure, and no doubt we feel frustrated. But let’s not allow that feeling to detract from the progress we’ve made since the holidays."
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said he and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have reached out with offers of support to Newfoundland Liberal leader and incumbent premier Andrew Furey.
Canada saw fewer than 3,050 new COVID-19 cases and 75 deaths reported daily on average over the past seven days, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Just over 2,700 patients were being treated in hospital daily, including 622 in critical care.
Tam said 21,311 people in Canada have died due to COVID-19.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2021.
—With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter and John Chidley-Hill
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press