Public health officials have identified upwards of 700 cases of contagious COVID-19 variants across Canada, the nation's top doctor said Saturday, a finding she said lends new urgency to her calls to maintain personal COVID-19 precautions.
Individual actions in conjunction with strong public health measures will be key to halting the spread of the highly infectious virus variants, Dr. Theresa Tam said.
"Strong collective action means each one of us doing our personal best by having the fewest interactions with the fewest people, for the shortest time, at the greatest distance possible, while wearing the best-fitting face-mask," Tam tweeted Saturday.
Overall daily case counts continued to trend downwards, but Tam said the at least 704 cases of variants of concern could fuel a bigger third wave of the pandemic.
The vast majority of variants detected in Canada thus far are the B.1.1.7 strain that first emerged in the U.K., while there have been 39 cases of the variant first discovered in South Africa, and one of the strain that originated in Brazil.
Tam's warning came as a suspected case of a coronavirus variant forced Quebec City officials to close an elementary school Saturday.
Regional public health director Dr. Andre Dontigny said the school would remain closed until public health authorities had more information, including confirmation that the case in question is in fact linked to a variant of concern. All staff and students were asked to get tested for COVID-19 over the weekend.
Quebec authorities said there had been 22 confirmed cases of variants of concern provincewide and an additional 286 cases under investigation.
Overall, the province reported 769 new cases of COVID-19 Saturday and 14 more deaths, including four within the past 24 hours. Hospitalizations declined by 23 to 700 and the number of patients in the ICU dropped by seven to 120.
Federal projections released Friday suggest COVID-19 variants could fuel 20,000 new cases per day by mid-March if public health restrictions are relaxed.
Tam noted a steady decline in overall COVID-19 infections, with 32,241 active cases across the country and a seven-day average of 2,905 new cases daily. There was an average of 59 deaths.
"Canadians are urged to remain vigilant and to continue following local public health advice as well as consistently maintaining individual practices that keep us and our families safer," said Tam, stressing the need to stay home if symptoms emerge and to reduce non-essential activities and outings.
Ontario reported a slight increase in daily case counts Saturday as it prepared to ease restrictions in one of its long-standing hot spots.
The province announced 1,228 new instances of COVID-19, up from 1,150 new infections reported Friday. There were 28 new virus-related deaths reported on Saturday.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said Toronto and Peel Region logged 331 and 228 cases, respectively, while York Region saw132 new cases.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford touted a measured approach on Friday when he announced York Region could lift stay-home restrictions and return to a colour-coded pandemic response framework at the second-most restrictive red level. That change is set to take effect on Monday.
Toronto, Peel and the North Bay-Parry Sound health unit are to remain under a stay-at-home order for at least two more weeks.
Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador reported 38 new confirmed cases and three presumptive cases of COVID-19, all in the eastern health region which includes St. John's.
New Brunswick reported three new infections in the hard-hit Edmundston region. Nova Scotia, meanwhile, reported four new cases.
In Manitoba, 95 new cases and three deaths were linked to COVID-19. Two deaths were associated with an outbreak at Winnipeg's Seven Oaks Hospital, and one was connected to a Winnipeg care facility.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2021.
– With files from Jacob Serebrin in Montreal
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press