Cause For Cautious Optimism in Canada's COVID-19 Fight: Tam

Cause For Cautious Optimism in Canada's COVID-19 Fight: Tam
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on March 26, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)
The Canadian Press

OTTAWA—There is cause for cautious optimism that the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic is slowing, Canada's top doctor said Wednesday, even as the country's central bank warned that the downturn tied to the virus would be the worst on record.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said that the number of cases in the country is now doubling every 10 days or so, compared to every three days in late March, which means the epidemic is slowing down.

But Tam warned emerging from COVID-19 would "be like making our way down the mountain in the darkness," stressing that it was too soon to ease physical distancing measures.

"We mustn't rush or let go of our safety measures, or the fall will be hard and unforgiving," she said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that widespread testing and contact-tracing will be key to an eventual reopening of the Canadian economy—something he said is still weeks away.

"We have to be through this first wave sufficiently to be able to know we have the capacity to stamp out and restrict any future outbreaks as they come along," he said.

"That means technology, that means better testing capacity, that means continued vigilance, not just by governments but by all Canadians .... We're still a number of weeks away from that."

Trudeau announced New Brunswick company LuminUltra was increasing production of chemicals needed to provide the required weekly supply for COVID-19 tests in all provinces. The country has received more shipments of the swabs needed for the tests, he said.

The pandemic has led to an unprecedented economic collapse, forcing the closure of businesses and sharp declines in consumer spending as people have been urged to stay home to stop the spread of the virus.

Economic activity dropped a record nine percent in March, according to preliminary data released by Statistics Canada.

Despite the bleak news, Trudeau was blunt as he warned that easing restrictions too soon could lead to a second wave of infections just as damaging as the first.

"If we reopen too soon, everything we're doing might be for nothing," he said.

Even as the rate of new cases has dropped or stabilized in some provinces, devastating outbreaks have swept through long-term care centres, killing vulnerable seniors by the dozens.

The death toll across the country surpassed the 1,000 mark on Wednesday morning with the announcement of 51 more fatal cases in Ontario and 52 in Quebec.

The largest number of the country's deaths have occurred in Quebec, which counts nearly half the country's confirmed cases.

Late Tuesday, Premier Francois Legault's government released a five-page list of seniors' residences and care homes with at least one case, including 25 institutions with at least a quarter of their residents infected.

Those include a long-term care home in Laval, north of Montreal, which counted 26 dead and over 120 infected.

In an effort to counter the economic blow of COVID-19, the Bank of Canada kept its key interest rate target on hold at 0.25 percent, saying that it is effectively as low as it can go.

The central bank's economic outlook said the speed of the anticipated rebound rests on the shoulders of containment efforts to bring the pandemic under control.

Some six million people had filed claims by Sunday night for a $2,000-a-month emergency benefit for help during the first four-week eligibility period.

To give a boost to struggling workers, Trudeau expanded the criteria of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit on Wednesday to include seasonal workers, those who are still working but earning less than $1,000 a month and those whose employment insurance has run out.

He said he would also be working with the province to raise the salaries of essential workers who earn less than $2,500 a month, which includes many working in care homes.