Some provinces hit hard by the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic have moved toward shedding more public health restrictions, but a national group of experts is calling for those governments to slow their plans down.
Zero Covid Canada sent a letter Thursday to the premiers of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec “to express our deepest concerns regarding the reopening plans.”
“As more and more evidence comes in, it appears that a single dose of the vaccine — including Pfizer — is only about 30 per cent effective against the Delta variant, which is ravaging India and the U.K. right now,” the letter read.
“Each new variant has the potential to evade vaccination efforts, and we need to protect our efforts to date.”
The group also noted that the variant has already caused multiple outbreaks in Canada, including at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, as well as spikes of cases in the Peel Region outside Toronto and in Manitoba.
“In these circumstances, reopening too soon will waste much of the hard work we’ve put in to stop the spread and cause a fourth wave,” said the letter. “If we make the last bit of effort, the current downgrading wave could be the last.”
In Alberta, public health restrictions brought in last month were eased Thursday as part of the second phase of the province’s reopening plan, which allows up to 20 people at outdoor gatherings, weddings and funeral services, but still bans indoor gatherings.
It also allows indoor recreation, entertainment and other settings to open at a third of the venue’s fire code occupancy. Gyms and fitness studios can open for solo and drop-in activities, as well indoor fitness classes with proper distancing.
Restaurants can have a maximum of six people per table, indoors or outdoors. Outdoor public gatherings such as concerts and festivals can have up to 150 people.
To reach the second phase, 60 per cent of eligible Albertans had to have at least one shot for a two-week period. As of Wednesday, the province was at about 67 per cent.
Premier Jason Kenney has said that all restrictions would be lifted when 70 per cent of the population has had one dose, but thousands more vaccination appointments are needed to get to that goal.
Last week, the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association sent a letter to the mayors of Calgary and Edmonton saying the province’s reopening plan was happening too fast.
The group asked the mayors to keep masking bylaws in place until at least 70 per cent of their cities’ eligible populations have been fully immunized.
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said this week that warnings from doctors’ groups about reopening plans “have been right every time.”
In Thursday’s letter to the premiers, Zero Covid Canada also recommended that provinces keep masking and social distancing, and only restore capacity limits indoors when 70 per cent of residents have had two doses of vaccine.
The group also asked provinces to prioritize second vaccine doses to essential workers and people living in areas of high infection rates, subsidize N95 masks and protect children by closing schools.
Ontario said Thursday that it is accelerating second doses for people in Delta variant hot spots. Starting Monday, residents in seven designated areas who received their first dose on or before May 9 can now book an appointment for an earlier second shot.
And Friday, Ontario is to enter the first of its three-stage reopening plan, which means limited retail shopping and patio dining will be allowed among other things. More restrictions will loosen after 21 days if pandemic indicators improve and more people get vaccinated.
The latest projections in Ontario released Thursday suggest sharply lower case counts and positivity rates will continue to fall in the immediate future, but concerns remain about the more transmissible and possibly more dangerous Delta variant.
“It will likely be the dominant form of the virus this summer,” said Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. “It is critical to control the spread of this variant.”
Also Thursday, Manitoba released its reopening plan, which will loosen public health restrictions as more people get vaccinated.
“The more of us who get vaccinated, the faster we can regain our freedoms and enjoy what we’ve lost this past year and a half,” said Premier Brian Pallister.
He said his Progressive Conservative government’s plan focuses on four activities that Manitobans value, three summer holiday dates and two public health responsibilities that will have to be followed.
If certain vaccination rates are met by those dates, limits will be loosened on gatherings, travel, shopping and dining.
“Summer is coming and the vaccines are here,” Pallister said. “It’s time for Manitobans to get their freedoms back and enjoy a summer that they all want and all deserve.”
The first immunization target is to have more than 70 per cent of Manitobans 12 and older get a first dose and more than 25 per cent have a second dose by Canada Day.
If that happens, the province said businesses and other facilities will be able to open at 25 per cent capacity.
Nearly 68 per cent of Manitobans have received a first dose.
Businesses will be allowed to open at half capacity if 75 per cent of people have had one dose and 50 per cent have had a second shot by the August long weekend.
The final target calls for 80 per cent of the population to have had one shot and 75 per cent with two shots by Labour Day. In that case, most businesses, services and facilities would be able to open with limited restrictions.
—Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press