'There's an overwhelming sense internally that people won't take to a second lockdown'
How are we going to handle a second wave?
It’s a question governments across the country are nervously contemplating as Canada eases into a summer downswing of the COVID-19 outbreak and prepares for a potential resurgence in the fall.
Canada’s response to a second wave depends primarily on how well we prepare right now, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday. That means increasing testing in hard hit areas and containing any outbreaks that crop up.
“We know particularly in those areas that are still working to get the spread of the virus under control it is going to be important to increase testing now… but also make sure that as we move forward through the summer and into the fall, we are ready to act extremely quickly, so that the population at large won’t be in situations of having to go back into confinement,” said Trudeau. “But that depends on citizens doing their part, and also depends on having that testing capacity.”
There is an uneasy feeling among some provincial governments that people won’t react well to schools and daycares being opened and closed several times, even if that’s necessary to battle a second wave of the virus. A second round of stay-at-home orders will be an especially hard sell, especially in areas like Alberta and Saskatchewan where the economy was already in trouble,
“No one in Canada still alive is used to these types of sacrifices or public policy moral quandaries,” said an Ontario government official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. “Things will not be normal until we get a vaccine.”
The Ontario government is considering a variety of creative measures, including cohort strategies at workplaces, which would put people into designated groups and allow them to isolate if one member of the group gets sick. And because physical distancing rules will have to be enforced at daycares, the government has even discussed a lottery system to decide who will be able to get the diminished number of spots. Next winter could bring mandatory mask orders for anyone in public.
If the pandemic continues to reach into virtually all aspects of human life and strikes again with seeming randomness, it could wreak havoc with the mental health of Canadians.
“An issue of concern is, the longer this drags out, the more restrictions are applied, then lifted, then applied, the more people are going to get social distancing fatigue, and we can probably expect to see an increase of non-compliance with social distancing,” said Steven Taylor, a psychologist at UBC and an expert in the psychology of pandemics.
“People are resilient and will eventually adapt to new restrictions, but it’s important that they have a realistic idea of how long it’s going to last. That requires good data to forecast the trajectory of the pandemic and governments willing to level with their citizens,” said Taylor.
Putting out fires
Clues are piling up about how governments plan to battle a second wave of the novel coronavirus in the face of a population weary of lockdowns.
“There’s an overwhelming sense internally that people won’t take to a second lockdown,” said the official in the Ontario government. “One thing is for certain we need to give the public some freedom or they won’t accept even basic limits.”
United States President Donald Trump said Thursday that he had no plans to lock the country down again and would, instead, tackle hotspots as they arise.
“People say that’s a very distinct possibility, it’s standard, and we’re gonna put out the fires,” Trump said, when asked about a second wave of the virus. “We’re not going to close the country, we’re going to put out the fires. There could be, whether it’s an ember or a flame, we’re gonna put it out. But we’re not closing our country.”
We're not going to close the country, we're going to put out the fires
A paper published in Science, one of the world’s top academic journals, by a team from Harvard evaluated a potential second wave and how governments may react to it.
To prevent the health care system from getting overwhelmed, the paper recommends thresholds for when strict physical distancing measures should be put back in place. If the number of infections reaches, for example, 35 cases per 10,000 people, the local government would re-impose stricter measures. The threshold would be determined by a variety of local factors, including the capacity of hospitals and the types of measures that the government is willing to put in place.
A second threshold would determine when the government would lift the strict measures and open things up again. The example used in the paper is when cases decline to five cases per 10,000 people, but this would again be dependent on local factors. A system like this would mean different parts of Canada could be in drastically different situations and each province would be tasked with monitoring the amount of infections.
In Alberta, restrictions were still in place in Calgary while Edmonton was able to open and in Montreal, which was particularly hard hit, the city lagged behind the rest of the province in re-opening. This kind of discordance could be a reality in Canada until a vaccine is widely available.
A second wave can come in a variety of forms, too, according to a study by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. The scenarios examined in the paper include a “fall peak,” which would be a massive, single wave of infections larger than the first wave, a “slow burn,” which would keep infections on a fairly manageable scale, and a series of “peaks and valleys” which would bring three or four more waves about the size of the first one.
Although Trudeau didn’t get into details about his government’s plans for a second wave he said he wanted to avoid keeping the population “at large” from confinement. That could be an indication that the federal government is looking at something similar to what the team from Harvard recommends. It’s also likely what Trump means by “putting out fires” as they erupt.
Getting the message out
Another concern among the provinces is there will be different scenarios unfolding across the country and the message from Ottawa won’t be consistent with what the provincial government is telling people. For example, when British Columbia was encouraging its residents to start getting outside and easing restrictions, Trudeau was telling them to stay home.
“I think it’s a concern that there’s been a bit of a mixed message coming from the feds,” said a senior official in the Alberta government who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the relationship.
The person made it clear that the federal government had a responsibility to explain the pandemic-fighting programs that were being unveiled almost every day, but hoped that Trudeau and his government would take a supporting role as the summer and fall approached. Trudeau could find himself in the unenviable position of trying to issue public health advice to people in provinces and territories that are in wildly different situations.
“That’s gonna scramble the system. It’s going to confuse people. People are going to downplay or dismiss the messages they don’t want to hear,” said Taylor. “So people might say, well, we’re locked down but people in the other province are out partying. That’s going to diminish the credibility of the last message.”
The one message that remains consistent, throughout federal and provincial governments, is that everyone wants to avoid another lengthy lockdown.
“We need to continue to do everything we can to prevent the need for any further lockdowns the way we’ve had up till now,” said Trudeau.