Health officials in Ontario and Manitoba are pointing to the recent Thanksgiving celebrations as they continue to see high numbers of new COVID-19 infections despite strengthening restrictions in hot spot areas.
In Ontario, where new cases reached a peak over the weekend, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the holiday took place around the same time as the province imposed stricter health measures in three regions, including Toronto. The tighter rules were applied to a fourth region more than a week later.
While the number of new daily infections is starting to decrease in some areas, such as Ottawa, in the other regions “we’re not seeing that happen quite as quickly as we’d like to,” Elliott said.
“We’re also seeing some of the impacts from Thanksgiving several weeks ago, so we’ve got that adding to the increase in community transmission, but we are also starting to see some of the numbers in some of the modified areas,” she said.
Elliott’s comments came a day after Ontario – one of the two provinces hit hardest by the pandemic – recorded 1,000 new cases, its highest single-day increase since the start of the global health crisis. The number of new infections dropped to 851 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, a level comparable to last week.
Of those, 281 cases were in Toronto, 215 in Peel Region, 90 in York Region and 76 in Ottawa.
Toronto’s medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa, said the current case counts reflect infections that were acquired about two weeks ago so it’s likely Thanksgiving played a role, but it’s not possible to say how significant an impact it had.
“Certainly the timing lines up appropriately,” she said Monday.
Meanwhile, Manitoba’s top doctor urged residents Monday to stop gathering in large groups, saying many of the 100 new cases reported by the province that day were linked to Thanksgiving festivities.
The vast majority of the new infections were also in Winnipeg, which was placed under enhanced restrictions following a recent spike in cases.
So far, there have been 4,349 cases in Manitoba, 2,117 of which are currently active, and 55 deaths related to the virus.
“The trajectory is in the wrong direction and if we continue at this pace, we are likely going to see over 5,000 cases by the end of this week,” Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, said Monday.
Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, said it’s challenging to know exactly what was driving the case numbers over the last few days.
The timing suggests Thanksgiving played a role “but it’s probably not the sole factor,” he said. “It certainly would be somewhat reasonable to think that part of that rise in cases was related to Thanksgiving, or people getting together for whatever reason,” he said.
At the same time, it would take at least two weeks to see any change as a result of new restrictions, and case counts would be expected to continue rising in that time, he said.
The next few weeks will be “very telling” when it comes to how the second wave is playing out, he said.
Either way, health officials should begin to prepare the public for Christmas – a holiday that involves even more gatherings and travel than Thanksgiving, he said.
“No one wants to say publicly that it’s unlikely that the numbers will be down in many of the hot spots in Canada in a sufficient enough way to say it’s okay to get together for Christmas,” he said.
Quebec, which has been leading the country in cumulative cases, also hit a grim milestone over the weekend, surpassing 100,000 total infections. The province reported 879 new cases on Sunday, and 808 on Monday.
Earlier this month, Quebec tightened restrictions in regions under its highest COVID-19 alert level, closing down gyms, putting limits on team sports and making masks mandatory for high school students.
Premier Francois Legault has hinted that some of those restrictions would remain in effect beyond the initial 28-day period, which is set to end Wednesday for Montreal and Quebec City.
That possibility has faced pushback from a group of roughly 200 Quebec business owners who say they plan to reopen their gym, dance, yoga or martial arts facilities on Thursday despite the rules.