TORONTO (Reuters) – Much of Canada is facing a fresh COVID-19 wave just as authorities ease measures meant to curb the spread of the virus, emboldened by a brief drop in cases and relatively high vaccination rates.
Public health experts are urging caution as COVID-19 levels in wastewater rise. Political analysts say looming elections in Ontario and Quebec, the most populous of Canada’s 10 provinces, could deter politicians from reinstating pandemic health measures.
Meanwhile, less testing is making it hard for individuals to do the personal risk assessments politicians are urging.
Most Canadians supported the restrictions and other pandemic measures in place for the past two years, though a vocal minority opposed them, prompting a three-week protest in early 2022 that paralyzed Ottawa and multiple international border crossings. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency powers to end the unrest.
While the premiers of Ontario and Quebec remain favored to be re-elected in the face of divided opposition, both risk alienating some voters if they impose new measures, pollsters say.
“I don’t think it’s ever too late or untenable to tighten things up again. But the political calculus around it, the closer you get to the election, that will be weighted more heavily,” said Shachi Kurl, president of pollster Angus Reid.
Ontario, which has an election on June 2, dropped its mask mandate in most locations last week. Quebec, which heads to the polls in October, plans to do so next month.
Alberta, where Premier Jason Kenny faces an internal leadership review amid push-back in his United Conservative Party over COVID-19 measures and other issues in the Western Canadian province, ended pandemic restrictions including a mask mandate on March 1.
Masks, however, are still required in some settings, including public transit, in all three provinces.
While a return to strict COVID-19 restrictions may make sense scientifically, “politically it would be extremely damaging” for Quebec Premier Francois Legault, said Philippe Fournier, creator of election projection site 338Canada.com.
‘PREMATURE’ MASK MOVE
Most Canadians got their COVID-19 vaccinations, with more than 90% of the population in some provinces having had at least a first dose. But that figure drops substantially for booster shots.
Canada’s COVID-19 death rate, at about 100 per 100,000 people, is roughly a third of the U.S. rate but more than four times that of Australia.
Spokespeople for the Ontario and Quebec health ministries said they are monitoring for any surge in the virus. A spokesperson for Alberta’s health ministry said its moves are in line with those in other jurisdictions and Albertans can “judge their own risk.”
The three provinces have previously denied that their easing of restrictions was motivated by politics.
Ontario’s science advisory table is revising its modeling of how bad the current wave could be as people spend more time indoors unmasked with those outside their households, said Peter Juni, the table’s scientific director.
He said the lifting of Ontario’s mask mandate was “premature.”
Masking has proven widely popular in Canada – 73% of those surveyed in an Angus Reid poll earlier this month supported it while 64% said they supported vaccine passports.
British Columbia Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender called on her province to restore the mask mandate that it recently ended.
Rejean Leclerc, the president of a Quebec union representing orderlies, called on the province not to drop its mask mandate on April 15, warning that a rise in COVID-19 patients could batter an already fragile hospital system.
COVID-19 cases are up elsewhere, with infections in Asia topping 100 million this week amid a resurgence dominated by the BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron.
Quebec’s top public health official said this week the number of healthcare workers off sick due to COVID-19 grew 60% in a week, to about 2.5% of the healthcare workforce.
Legault’s center-right Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), while the front-runner to win the October election against four rival parties, faces pressure on the right from a conservative who opposes mandates.
Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford, meanwhile, faces a balancing act, Kurl said.
“You want to look like you’re making good, reasonable decisions while at the same time not annoying important parts of your voter base,” the Angus Reid president said.
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny and Toronto and Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by Denny Thomas and Paul Simao)