Canada's Coronavirus Outbreak Slows as Cases Top 50,000 but Long Fight Looms

Canadian hospitals had beds to spare as the country hit 50,373 confirmed coronavirus cases on Wednesday, and several provinces were relaxing public health measures, but health experts were already worrying about a future wave of infections.

While it is too soon to say whether Canada's epidemic has peaked, it has slowed, thanks to swift workplace closures and other physical distancing measures: New cases doubled every three days early in the epidemic, and now double every 16 days, the government said on Tuesday. Since the first death on March 9, the virus has killed 2,904 in total. In the United States, an average of 2,000 died each day in April, a Reuters tally found.

"I really thought we were on track for something similar to what we were watching unfold in Italy and subsequently in New York (a month ago)," said epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite of the University of Toronto. "I think big picture, across the country, we've done OK."

Hospitals fared well although the virus flared in long-term care homes and several prisons. Like the United States and European countries, Canada has struggled to contain the outbreak among seniors, and approximately 79% of deaths are linked to long-term care and seniors' homes.

In British Columbia, where cases spiked early on, partly due to its proximity to the first U.S. epicenter of Washington state, the number of coronavirus patients in hospital is falling. The province had a total of 94 COVID-19 patients in hospital on Tuesday, including 37 in intensive care, down from a peak of 149 on April 4, according to provincial data compiled by Reuters.

In Ontario and Quebec, the number in ICU has plateaued.

Non-ICU hospitalizations are still climbing in Ontario and Quebec, a consequence of transfers from overwhelmed long-term care homes, officials said. Ontario had 742 non-ICU patients as of Wednesday, up 17% from a week earlier, according to a Reuters tally. In hard-hit Quebec, the figure rose 38% on Tuesday from a week earlier, to 1,408 as more seniors were shifted to hospitals.

But the data suggests that the vast majority of Canadians have not been ill. Some may not know anyone who has been ill. And as the weeks stretch on, officials have started to acknowledge that people are getting impatient.

"The measures we've taken so far are working. In fact, in many parts of the country, the curve has flattened, but we're not out of the woods yet," said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday. "We're in the middle of the most serious public health emergency Canada has ever seen and if we lift measures too quickly, we might lose the progress we've made."

The problem with successfully controlling the first wave of an epidemic is that it can set up a large second wave, said Gerald Evans, a Queen's University researcher and medical director of infection control at Kingston Health Sciences Centre, a hospital. Few have been exposed, so many are still susceptible to the virus.

"We've been able to provide care for people without overwhelming the system. The drawback is, we have to be prepared for that to happen again during a second wave," he said.

Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba, is worried about the possibility of a second wave that could overlap with flu season, especially given how few people seem to have been exposed the first time around.

"We are doing well, but we certainly are nowhere near the end yet," he said. "This is a long game."