Published Tuesday, February 2, 2021 2:25PM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, February 2, 2021 6:56PM EST
At least 148 cases of the variants that first emerged in the United Kingdom (known scientifically as B.1.1.7) and South Africa (known as B.1.351) have been confirmed across the country, Tam said Tuesday.
Health authorities in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia have identified both mutations, with 135 of the B.1.1.7 strain and 13 of the B.1.351 strain reported from coast to coast.
The four cases of the B.1.351 variant that were confirmed in B.C. and the one case reported in Ontario's Peel Region have no known link to international travel, raising fears of community spread.
“I think there are definitely signs that the variants are at least transmitted to a certain extent in communities - and we probably are not detecting them all,” Tam said.
“This is the initial signal that we need to be very vigilant and very cautious about relaxation of those public health measures.”
Canada needs to ramp up testing for variants through the labour-intensive process of whole-genome sequencing, though the country compares well against most others, Tam said.
Health officials sequence between five and 10 per cent of all samples that test positive for COVID-19 across Canada, says Natalie Prystajecky, head of the environmental microbiology program at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control's public health lab and a member of the Canadian COVID-19 Genomics Network.
“Without escalating the capacity for the sequencing to a greater extent, you won't know if you have the variant,” Tam said.
Maintaining sufficient public health restrictions to limit viral spread, regardless of the variant, is even more critical than sequencing, says Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor in the department of medicine at the University of Toronto who studies infectious diseases.
Public officials need to “double down” on their response to the pandemic and “not be lulled” into a belief that declining numbers means safeguards can be drastically loosened, he said.
“That's my biggest fear. And we've already heard the premiers of Alberta and Quebec making strong moves to open up their economy,” he said, adding that some easing could be reasonable.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced Friday the province will allow restaurants and cafes to reopen with capacity limits starting Feb. 8.
In Quebec City, Premier Francois Legault said on Tuesday that starting next week, stores, personal care salons and museums can reopen across the province. He credited a steady drop in infections and hospitalizations for his decision.
But Legault said hospitals in big cities remain under too much pressure for him to lift any more restrictions in such regions as Montreal and Quebec City, where an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew will remain in effect.
Legault said that in six, less-populated regions of the province, the curfew's start will be delayed until 9:30 p.m. and restaurants, gyms and indoor sports facilities will be able to reopen as of Monday.
As the more contagious strains of COVID-19 take hold, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says “rare exceptions” to new travel restrictions will be made on compassionate grounds, but that tough rules must be implemented in the next few weeks.
“Since the beginning of this pandemic there have been stories of funerals that haven't been able to be held, weddings had to (be) put off or done by Zoom, families not being able to get together,” Trudeau said at a press conference.
“But at the same time our responsibility is to make sure we're keeping Canadians as safe as possible. These new variants out there are of real concern,” he said.