Room for hope — but also warning — in Canada's flattening coronavirus curve

WATCH: Premiers agree to develop guidelines for reopening economy

Coronavirus infections are easing in Ontario and Quebec, so far Canada’s worst-hit provinces.

New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, nearly unaffected by the global pandemic, announced plans last week to cautiously reopen.

It’s tempting to look for good news in the graph below, but the University of Toronto’s Colin Furness sees reason for caution in the upticks in Alberta and B.C. in recent days.

“Once you have flattened, you then get little brush fires. And when your case count goes very low, a small brush fire becomes significant,” he wrote in an exchange of emails.

“All the upticks provide a cautionary tale for reopening,” he warns. “This virus wants to go everywhere, and given the opportunity, it will do so. We need to knock down community spread altogether if we don’t want to have it come roaring back.”

Across Canada, governments are feeling pressure to reopen parts of their societies.

Saskatchewan has opened some medical services and previously closed outdoor activities. New Brunswick now allows two different households to spend physical time with each other.

On Monday, Ontario announced a plan for reopening the province by stages, each taking two to four weeks, as officials decide whether the virus was returning.

In each stage, limitations on workplaces and gatherings would be progressively relaxed, though the government cautions that the province could delay going on to the next stage.

There is no clear commitment about opening schools and day cares; the document says only that “the government recognizes the important needs of both parents and children in relation to public health decisions about how and when to open child care centres.”

Quebec, on the other hand, said Monday that will open schools and day cares in mid-May.

Ontario would not commit to a specific timeline.

“I don’t want to go out there and start setting dates, then we see a spike and then we have to slow things down,” premier Doug Ford said Monday. “Let’s get it right the first time, and then we’ll be able to have a better idea. Hopefully we will start to see the numbers come down in the next couple of weeks.”

If Canada’s coronavirus lockdown eases, could sewage act as an early warning system?

One crucial question is: how would we know if a reopening had been a mistake?

Furness thinks we would need far better surveillance of the virus in place before we could responsibly start relaxing restrictions on society.

“Widespread testing is key for reopening,” he writes.

“If we make a mistake, it may take more than a month to notice, at which time we will have a new inflection point (i.e. sudden, rapid rise). At that point, we’d have to start all over again.”

It would be better to have “very widespread” testing in place for people at the highest risk, he says: not just health-care workers but others, such as prison guards and grocery store workers, he says.

Charts by Max Hartshorn

About logarithmic charts

The charts above are logarithmic charts.

In a traditional chart, the vertical axis is divided evenly: 10, 20, 30. In a logarithmic chart, the vertical axis accelerates by a factor of 10: 10, 100, 1,000 and so forth. Logarithmic charts show change better, but you have to bear the distortion in mind.

You can see charts like this for dozens of countries here.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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