As newer, more infectious coronavirus variants spread in provinces across Canada, experts say people need to be taking precautions to reduce transmission — even outside.
"We had, compared with what we're facing now, a really lazy opponent," said Dr. Peter Jüni, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Toronto and Scientific Director of Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
"Now we have a highly dynamic opponent, much higher force of infection ... and this just means that we really need to do much, much more than last summer."
Manitoba health officials said Friday variants of concern now make up roughly 32 per cent of new infections in the province and that number is expected to rise. Recent data from Ontario shows virus variants are linked to an increased risk of hospitalization and death.
As of Friday, variants of concern accounted for about 55 per cent of new coronavirus infections in Ontario.
When it comes to reducing the risk of infection outdoors, Jüni's advice is don't overthink it.
He said outdoors is always safer than indoors, and people should only meet with those who aren't in their household bubble outside. When getting together outside people should maintain two metres of physical distancing and if people need to get close to each other, even for a short amount of time, they should wear a mask.
He said the rules also apply to restaurant patios, playgrounds and outdoor sports where you could get within 2 metres of another person.
"The point is the new variants are roughly 40 per cent more transmissible," said Jüni. "If we let down our guard, we will be punished more strongly than before and we absolutely can't afford that right now. We are on the completely wrong trajectory and we now really need to do the right thing."
Craig Jenne, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Calgary and a Canada Research Chair, said while the outdoors is safer, it's not not a bulletproof protection mechanism.
Jenne encourages people to get outside and find safe ways to enjoy warmer weather, but warns there have been reports of virus variants spreading outdoors at family gatherings and while people participate in sports. Restaurant patios have also led to "evidence of tranmission," Jenne said.
Earlier this week, Alberta's chief medical officer noted cases where transmission of the virus occurred while people were on long walks without being distanced or masked.
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Jenne said there has been documented transmission of the initial SARS-CoV-2 strain outdoors in the past. However, he said variants of concern are better at infecting cells and a person doesn't need to be exposed to as much of the virus to get sick.
"It's just that much more efficient," he explained. "Even a few viral particles can be enough to infect us … these variants can take advantage of that and remain fairly infectious even with that extra safety of being outside."
He called the speed in which these new coronavirus variants are spreading remarkable.
Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said while vaccines have made him more hopeful than last summer, the variants of concern have added a whole new threat.
"So that's what is worrying me," he said. "That's there's going to be a whole lot of people who are harmed."
While the race is on to get people vaccinated, he said provinces such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan could continue to see a high number of cases over the next few months. That means people should be taking steps to keep themselves safe.
"It's better to be cautious and safe than sorry," he said.
When outdoors, he tries to avoid crowded areas, and when that's not possible he wears a mask. He's also switched from wearing a cloth mask to a medical grade one.
"If we are passing many people, like even momentarily...we should be wearing a mask," said Muharjarine. "Especially if … variant-driven community transmission is high."
Jüni said everyone can contribute to doing the right thing while vaccine rollouts ramp up.
"If we don't, it will backfire," he said.