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Ontario’s move puts pressure on feds to reveal national COVID-19 projections

Feds hope national projections will be available soon
Premier Doug Ford will release the best and worst-case COVID-19 scenarios for his province, in an April 3, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

OTTAWA — Canadians should brace for some grim numbers today as Ontario reveals its projections for how bad the COVID-19 pandemic could get in the country’s most populous province and how long it could last.

Premier Doug Ford’s decision to let Ontarians in on the “stark” best and worst-case scenarios will put pressure on the federal government to provide a national picture of the potential progression of the deadly virus, which by Thursday had already infected more than 11,000 Canadians and resulted in almost 200 deaths.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that such national modelling is coming “soon” but requires more data from provincial and territorial governments — a subject he discussed with premiers during a more than two-hour first ministers’ conference call Thursday evening.

Federal officials are hoping the national projections will be available within the next five days.

Three weeks ago, Health Minister Patty Hajdu estimated that 30 to 70 per cent of Canadians could become infected — somewhere between 11 million and 26 million people.

In an interview late Thursday with The Canadian Press, Hajdu said that estimate hasn’t changed.

She noted that wide spread of the disease is not necessarily a bad thing since it will eventually result in ”herd immunity.” But how many will die depends on how many get sick all at the same time, and to what degree those numbers overwhelm the ability of Canada’s health system to care for people.

“Having 70 per cent of people get COVID is not the end of the world. It is, though, if it all happens at once and that’s what we’re trying to prevent,” Hajdu said.

“The death rate is intimately connected to your capacity to provide hospitalization and care for those who are most sick.”

At the moment, Canada’s death rate stands at about one per cent of those who’ve tested positive for the disease. But that could shoot up as a surge in cases threatens to overwhelm hospitals, particularly in Ontario and Quebec.

Hajdu said compiling a national picture of the potential progression of the virus is complicated by the fact that the federal government has to work with data provided by 13 different provincial and territorial governments using a variety of reporting techniques. Ottawa is offering to help those jurisdictions that don’t have the capacity to keep up with the detailed data flow necessary to do accurate modelling, she said.

It’s further complicated by the fact that the trajectory of COVID-19 is different from province to province, with some showing few new cases while the numbers jump “exponentially” elsewhere. As well, the measures each jurisdiction is taking to curb spread of the virus vary widely.

“What it looks like in Ontario is actually completely different than what it might look like in B.C., for example, or Northwest Territories. It’s when you try to pack all that into a national lens that you want to be really careful that you’re not mixing apples and oranges,” Hajdu said.

Projecting a national death rate “wouldn’t really be telling the true picture,” she argued, suggesting it would make more sense to have 13 separate projections for each province and territory.

“It’s not that I’m trying to hide things from Canadians at all,” Hajdu said.

“I just don’t want to get out ahead of ourselves without a full set of data … It’s very important that we do that work so that we’re not presenting any kind of, I guess, misleading or even sometimes inflated perspective.”

In the absence of national projections, Trudeau is expected to reiterate today his message that the scope and duration of the pandemic is in Canadians’ hands: the more they abide by orders to stay home and keep their distance from others, the sooner this will be over.

He is also expected to announce federal funding to help provide services for vulnerable people during the crisis — with more announcements in the same vein to come.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2020.