Community spread of new COVID-19 variants may be happening in Canada: Tam

Community transmission of the highly infectious new variants of the coronavirus may already be happening in Canada.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam addressed concerns raised over recent weeks by health-care practitioners about the potential for extremely infectious variants of the virus that may be circulating in Canadian communities, increasing the risk of exponential growth.

“While the number of cases in Canada with a virus variant of concern has been limited to date, recent cases with no travel history suggest that community transmission may already be occurring in Canada,” Tam said in the statement.

“To ensure that virus variants that can spread more easily do not take hold, there is even greater urgency to suppress COVID-19 activity in Canada.”

READ MORE: Does Canada need tighter travel restrictions to control COVID-19?

A little more than a dozen cases of a variant of the virus first identified in the U.K. last month have been identified in Canada so far, but the emergence of the strain among individuals who have not travelled abroad raises concerns that it could spread rapidly and overload Canadian health-care systems.

The virus is rapidly mutating with new strains identified from the U.K., South Africa and South America in recent weeks, and the highly contagious U.K. strain is on track to become the dominant circulating variant in the U.S. by March, according to American health officials. 

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Provinces are already grappling with severe strains on health care caused by spikes in the virus that began before the holidays but worsened as roughly one-third of Canadians admitted to ignoring public health advice to gather with friends and family.

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The new U.K. variant is believed to be roughly 56 per cent more transmissible than the main coronavirus strain circulating.

Tam urged Canadians to use the same public health rules many have followed so far to bring spiking cases down and prevent any further spread of the new variant in Canadian communities.

Physical distancing, wearing masks and frequent handwashing are crucial, she said.

“Now, more than ever, we need to be vigilant and redouble our efforts that remove opportunities for the virus to spread to prevent more harm and impact on the health system,” said Tam.

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