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Amid Variants And Limited Vaccines, Canada Braces For A COVID-19 Surge

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Limited vaccine supplies don't just affect the least developed countries. Case in point, Canada. For most of the pandemic, Canada has had a lower COVID-19 infection rate than the United States, but that's no longer the case, as Canada struggles with limited vaccine, along with a rise in cases involving variants. Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took the unusual step of recommending that Americans avoid all travel north of the border.

Reporter Emma Jacobs joins us now from Montreal to talk about Canada's third wave. Emma Jacobs, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Why is Canada having such a tough time vaccinating people?

JACOBS: So there are a couple of problems here. One, Canada went into this pandemic not having domestic manufacturing capacity for these vaccines. So it's having to import everything, and the supplies are just not arriving fast enough. And simultaneously, the other problem is that the three major variants of concern - from Brazil, U.K. and South Africa - they're all present, and they're all driving up cases. So that's forced a number of provinces to make tough decisions about how to allocate these vaccines. A number are delaying second shots by several months to try and spread some protection to as many people as possible and hopefully have a cumulative impact on transmission and hospitalizations.

So provinces had generally been pretty focused on vaccinating older people as well as health care workers, but in places like Ontario now - that's the biggest, most populous province here in Canada - we're seeing more younger people in hospitals, especially related to these new variants and coming from particular neighborhoods with lots of essential workers.

I talked with University of Toronto epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite. She says vaccination has to become more like a game of strategy than the race that it's described as in the U.S.

ASHLEIGH TUITE: At this point, given the vaccine supply that we have, it's been recognized that there are some parts of the province where the risk of getting infected is so much higher than other parts and that continuing to do this very deliberate going down by age, by age, isn't going to be effective in terms of curbing transmission. And it's not equitable.

JACOBS: So in Ontario just this week, Premier Rob Ford (ph) said they're going to open vaccination to everyone over 18 in certain neighborhoods. And Quebec is also starting to vaccinate some essential workers and tried some targeted vaccination around schools with variant outbreaks.

MARTIN: Could you just tell us a bit more about what's happening throughout Canada with these variants?

JACOBS: So there's a very bad outbreak of the Brazil variant in British Columbia. The British variant is very widespread elsewhere, multiple provinces, and it's more contagious. And based on what they're seeing, particularly in Ontario, they're really convinced it's making younger people sicker.

Experts knew these were present and circulating in Canada by January, and a lot of physicians were urging provinces to be very cautious coming out of the second wave. But they didn't get everything they wanted, and we're seeing the impacts of that now. Quebec, for example, reopened gyms, and just one in Quebec City has been linked to more than 400 cases. The epidemiologist Tuite says after the second wave, hospitalizations never got as low as they did after the first wave. So there's really potential now to be overwhelmed.

MARTIN: So what are some of the steps that local or provincial governments are taking now?

JACOBS: Well, Quebec reclosed gyms. And the second largest city in Canada here, Montreal, we've been under a curfew since January. That's being pushed earlier, again, back to 8 o'clock. A new Ontario stay-at-home order went into effect on Thursday, and British Columbia is closing some businesses and pushing more activities outside. But there's definitely less appetite for these lockdown measures after a year, and that only gets harder with the spring.

MARTIN: That was Emma Jacobs in Montreal. Emma, thank you so much for joining us.

JACOBS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 12, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we misstate the first name of Ontario Premier Doug Ford as Rob. The premier's late brother, Rob Ford, was Toronto's mayor.
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