01/24/2021 13:36 EST | Updated 01/24/2021 16:41 EST

COVID Cases Dropping But Too Early To Ease Restrictions: Tam

Canada is grappling with more than 65,000 cases and at least two new variants.

COVID-19 cases are beginning to decline across the country but the situation remains too precarious to ease restrictions, says Canada’s top doctor.

The hardest hit provinces, Ontario, Quebec and Alberta, reported a decline in cases over the last week. They all have strict lockdown measures in place, including a curfew in Quebec and closed schools in Ontario. 

“While this suggests that community-based measures may be starting to take effect, it is too soon to be sure that current measures are strong enough and broad enough to maintain a steady downward trend,” said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam in a statement Saturday.

Daily case counts remain high, with 65,750 active cases reported Saturday and more than 6,000 new cases on average over the last week — down from 7,672 cases a day at the beginning of the month. Outbreaks continue in hospitals, long-term care homes, correctional facilities, congregate living settings and Indigenous and remote communities, said Tam. 

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

“We can expect to see ongoing heavy impacts on our healthcare system and health workforce for weeks to come,” she warned. 

Everyday in the last week, on average, more than 4,500 people with COVID-19 were being treated in hospitals, 870 were admitted in intensive care units and 149 died. 

Ontario and Quebec’s shutdowns are likely to continue until at least mid-February. Alberta eased some measures last week to allow up to 10 people to see each other outdoors and some businesses to reopen for appointments, such as hair salons and tattoo shops, but indoor gatherings remain banned. 

Tam said the new virus variants could rapidly accelerate transmission.

Stringent and consistent efforts are needed to sustain a downward trend in case counts and strongly suppress COVID-19 activity across Canada,” she said. 

“This will not only prevent more tragic outcomes, but will help to ensure that new virus variants of concern do not have the opportunity to spread.” 

Public Health officials reported earlier this week three cases of the South Africa variant and 31 cases of the U.K. variant detected in Canada and warned they may already be spreading in communities largely undetected. 

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters Friday the COVID-19 variant detected in his country, which significantly drove infections up in December, may be linked to a “higher degree of mortality.”

Public health officials in Muskoka Ont. are investigating if an outbreak in a long-term care home was caused by the U.K. variant. 

Six patients and three staff at Bradford Valley Care, a for-profit home, had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Saturday, the health district said in a statement. One of these people had close contact with another person who tested positive for the U.K variant of the virus. 

“Given this situation, we are working together in partnership with the residence to implement additional measures to contain the spread while pursuing the necessary tests to determine if it is the UK variant of COVID-19 that is the cause of this outbreak,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, the region’s medical officer of health.

He also confirmed the variant is behind an outbreak at nearby home Roberta Place in Barrie, Ont., where all but two of the 127 residents and 84 residents tested positive and 31 people have died.

Another new variant has been detected in Japan, said the World Health Organization’s Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus earlier this month. He urged countries to sequence positive COVID-19 tests to detect for variations. 

“We call on all countries to increase the sequencing of the virus to supplement ongoing surveillance, monitoring and testing efforts,” he said. “And to share that data internationally. This helps us better understand when variants of concern are identified.” 

Canada sequences five per cent of COVID-19 cases, which is better than the U.S. where only 0.3 per cent of tests are sequenced. In the U.K., about seven per cent of cases are sequenced, whereas Australia has sequenced close to 50 per cent of cases.