Too soon to know if Canada's COVID-19 case decline will continue, Tam says

MONTREAL — It's still too soon to know whether the recent downward trend in new COVID-19 cases will continue, Canada's chief public health officer said Sunday as several provinces grappled with outbreaks that threatened to derail their fragile progress.

Dr. Theresa Tam said there's been an improvement in the COVID-19 numbers in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, but the disease is regaining steam elsewhere.

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"While community-based measures may be starting to take effect in some areas, it is too soon to be sure that current measures are strong enough and broad enough to maintain a steady downward trend across the country," she wrote in a statement.

Some long-standing virus hot spots have made headway in lowering the number of new cases in recent weeks, but are still fighting outbreaks and flare-ups as they race to vaccinate vulnerable communities.

The federal public safety minister announced Sunday that the Canadian Armed Forces will support vaccine efforts in a large swath of northern Ontario.

Bill Blair said on Twitter that armed forces personnel will support vaccine efforts in 32 communities of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a collection of 49 First Nations spanning about two thirds of the province.

The military has previously been asked to help with the vaccine rollout in First Nations communities in Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba.

Health officials in Ontario were also investigating whether a long-term care home could become the second in the province to be linked to a U.K. variant of COVID-19, after a first home in Barrie, Ont., made headlines when it became infected with the more contagious strain.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit said Sunday that an individual with the U.K. variant within the region had close contact with a person who is also part of an outbreak at Bradford Valley Care Community, a long-term care home in Bradford West Gwillimbury, south of Barrie.

Ontario's daily case count stood at 2,417 on Sunday, up slightly from the figure recorded a day earlier but significantly lower than levels seen earlier in the month when the province consistently logged more than 3,000 new diagnoses every 24 hours.

Quebec, meanwhile, reported a fifth straight day with a decline in the number of hospitalizations as the health minister urged citizens to keep following protective measures. But the province was still dealing with more than 1,350 active outbreaks, including one at a jail north of Montreal with over 60 cases.

Farther west, Police in Regina said they monitored a weekend anti-lockdown protest outside the home of Saskatchewan's top doctor and are still determining if further action will be taken.

Premier Scott Moe condemned the protest targeting Dr. Saqib Shahab in a statement late Saturday, saying those who disagree with his government's decisions should take their issues up with him or a local legislator rather than going after a "dedicated public servant and his family."

He said Shahab should not be subjected to harassment from a "group of idiots" and that the government is looking into long-term security options to protect the chief medical officer of health and his relatives.

The Regina Police Service issued a release saying officers monitored the situation and conducted an investigation until the protesters departed after about an hour.

Saskatchewan's COVID-19 case count rose by 260 on Sunday as the province announced it had exhausted its supply of vaccines.

Officials said they had delivered 101 per cent of available inoculations, accounting for the overage by saying they'd found "efficiencies" when drawing doses from vaccine vials.

Manitoba, meanwhile, logged 222 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday and three more deaths.

Alberta also recorded a decline in case counts with 463 new diagnoses, news the province's top public health official characterized as reassuring.

"We continue to see encouraging signs with the decline in active cases and hospitalizations," Dr. Deena Hinshaw said in a tweet. "Let’s keep the momentum going and follow all public health guidance to reduce the spread of COVID-19."

The news was less positive in Nunavut, where officials recorded a surge in new COVID-19 cases after weeks without infections. The territory reported 13 new diagnoses in Arviat, a community of about 2,800 which had been the centre of Nunavut's largest COVID-19 outbreak and at one point had 222 cases.

While some provinces and territories reported flare-ups of new infections, other provinces had better news to report.

Newfoundland and Labrador did not record any new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, while Nova Scotia identified just one.

New Brunswick fared less well as it reported 20 new cases, just hours after the hard-hit Edmundston region entered lockdown.

In a statement, Tam said the prospect of vaccines has offered Canadians "hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight."

But in the meantime, she stressed that all Canadians need to keep following health measures, even after they're immunized.

She said following public health measures will also reduce the spread of new variants of COVID-19, including the ones identified in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan 24, 2021

With files from Victoria Ahearn in Toronto, Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton and Kevin Bissett in Fredericton

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