New modelling data from the federal government forecasts that Canada could see more than one million COVID-19 cases by April 2.
The information presented on Friday also shows that cumulative deaths due to COVID-19 could be between 22,875 to 23,315 by the same date.
During the briefing, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, stressed that the risks of COVID-19 variants are very real. They've been depicted in longer-range forecasting that accounts for transmission dynamics of both non-variant COVID-19 cases and cases of variants of concern.
"With more contagious variants spreading, this model predicts that current community based public health measures will be insufficient to control rapid growth and resurgence," Dr. Tam said. "But if a combination of enhanced community-based public health measures and good adherence to individual precautions are implemented and sustained, the epidemic is forecast to plateau."
She added that for local authorities, this means "immediately implementing" strong public health measures, including closures or other rules to reduce contacts.
"We’ve been saying all along that if we ease measures too soon, before enough people are vaccinated, the epidemic will resurge even stronger," Dr. Tam said.
When asked about provinces, particularly Ontario, that have seen public health measured increased and loosened with a yo-yo effect, Canada's chief public health officer believes an important approach would be to try and not go "up and down" too frequently.
"Sustain a certain level of restrictive measures," Dr. Tam said. "If there are detections that this activity is ramping up then definitely don't relax."
In the past two months, COVID-19 variant cases have appeared in all 10 provinces. Over 7,100 cases of variants of concern have been reported in Canada, with the B.1.1.7. variant accounting for over 90 per cent of these cases.
Atlantic Canada has been most successful in managing importation and interrupting spread of the virus, with variants of concern making up between five per cent and 50 per cent of cases in provinces west of the Maritimes.
"Strong and sustained community based public health measures, and consistent adherence to individual practices, works best to slow growth, maintain low levels of activity or eliminate transmission from an area," Dr. Tam said.
Over a third of regions across Canada are reporting high incidents of 100 cases or more per 100,00 population, which includes urban areas, rural and northern regions.
Daily case counts in Canada have increased by 30 per cent in the past two week, with an average of 4,050 new cases reported each day.
Lagging indicators, including hospitalizations, are also starting to increase, with the average stay for a patient being treated for COVID-19 totalling two weeks, or close to three weeks for individuals experiencing severe illness.
The effective reproduction number (Rt), which shows how many people are being infected by each new case, has been above one in Canada since early March.
"When each new case infects less than one person the epidemic will die out," Dr. Tam said.
Canada's chief public health stressed that there is an "ongoing risk" of COVID-19 spread in Indigenous communities but a successful vaccine program will contribute to the "resilience" in these areas in Canada.
Dr. Tam identified that the "good news" is that since January, incident rates have declined in adults over the age of 80, who were prioritized in vaccination plans across Canada.
The "not so good news" is that COVID-19 is circulating the highest among people between the ages of 20 and 39, individuals who are more mobile and socially connected.
Dr. Tam identified that vaccines are a vital tool to reduce the impact of COVID-19, expecting the epidemic to come under control "in the coming months" with increased protection from vaccinations.
"COVID-19 still has a few tricks in store," she warned. "While the news of increasing disease activity...and severe outcomes is discouraging after so many months of sacrifice, we’ve made significant progress, and as the warmer days approach we’ll have more options to get outside as we work through this critical leg of the COVID-19 marathon."
"We are closer now than ever but it is still too soon to relax measures and too soon to gather in areas where COVID-19 is still circulating in Canada."