Jean-Paul Soucy, with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, is an expert on the COVID-19 caseloads and projections, and also a huge advocate of the benefits of running and exercising outdoors. Ben Kaplan caught up with Soucy before the holidays to better understand if we’re finally bending the curve, how to keep our families safe and healthy, and when and if we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel of this very difficult pandemic year.
Ben Kaplan: Where are we right now as a country in battling this disease?
Jean-Paul Soucy: Like any good story, pandemics have a beginning, middle and an end. We’re quite solidly in the middle—with an end in sight.
BK: That sounds like good news.
JPS: It is, except that, unfortunately, in many ways this is the most difficult part of the pandemic. With winter, you have everyone inside, plus, everyone’s exhausted having gone through this since March.
BK: But you can see an end?
JPS: We have a vaccine in place with distribution sometime in Q1 in Canada for priority populations, and certainly throughout the rest of the year for the rest of the population getting vaccinated. So really, now is the most difficult challenge.
BK: Winter and the holidays?
JPS: We know this virus spreads well indoors compared to outdoors, and it’s really cold outside in Canada. You know, we do have a crystal ball to see what could happen here if we don’t listen to the health experts. In Europe and parts of the US, we’ve seen tidal waves of people in hospitals, in Intensive Care Units, and they’ve had to impose very strict lockdowns as a result of their numbers.
BK: I heard you on TV saying Canada has some advantages over Europe in terms of our capabilities for fighting COVD-19.
JPS: Canada is effectively an island compared to Europe (because we have only one land border, and it is closed). And Canada being like an island is an advantage (it’s easier to control travel). But we have some disadvantages, too.
BK: Like what?
JPS: Europe and the US both have a lot more hospital beds, especially compared in a per-capita ratio with Ontario. Our hospitals run at, or over-capacity, during the best of times, and now we’re trying to deal with surges of COVID and keep up elective surgeries, and it poses an immense challenge to our healthcare system going into winter. But again, we do have an end in sight.
BK: I love that you keep saying that.
JPS: It does it make it easier for us to unify around the sacrifices we have to make. We have to get through this winter.
BK: I like that you use the term, “making sacrifices.” It gives us the power.
JPS: The virus is going to force us to make sacrifices. We can be reactive, or make them on our own terms. We can see how quickly things can deteriorate. Manitoba went from having a relatively low caseload throughout the pandemic to having more active cases per-capita and more hospitalized cases per capita than any other province. That process took a month.
BK: What does that tell you?
JPS: No one is immune. No place is immune.
BK: So, the holidays. What concerns you the most?
JPS: We have lockdowns in Manitoba. Lockdowns in BC, Alberta, Toronto, Peel. We should take strong action proactively before being forced to take drastic action reactively. The nature of exponential growth and trying to keep cases at a manageable level is dancing on a knife’s edge—it’s easy to tip over and see the cases spiralling out of control.
BK: What would you like to see happen across the country?
JPS: A plan to keep numbers down after the lockdown, so we don’t just yoyo back and forth between shutdowns. We need a world-class system for testing, tracing and isolation, and to allow people to take paid time off of work if they’re showing symptoms. Remember: if we’re seeing a wave of COVID hospitalizations, these are people who contracted the virus weeks ago. We can’t react to hospitals. If you do, you’re reacting to cases from weeks and months ago. We need to be proactive in our fight against this disease.
BK: I’m a parent and I miss races and I miss bars and restaurants, but I really want to see my kids stay in school.
JPS: If we can build a robust system for testing, tracing and isolation, I think we can close other things and keep schools open. There’s a hierarchy of closures and schools are high up there, but it’s wishful thinking, I’m sorry to say, that there aren’t transmissions happening in schools.
BK: I know.
JPS: Look at Quebec. Look at Montreal. It’s clear transmission is happening in schools and filtering into the communities. Schools don’t automatically make things worse, but they amplify community transmission. They add fuel to the fire.
BK: You’re a runner. Maybe a lapsed runner, but still a runner. Can Canadians continue running outside?
JPS: We should be promoting outdoor exercise as much as possible. And if you have to meet people over the holidays, it’s vastly preferable to go outside and take a walk together than doing something in your home.
BK: What about running outdoors?
JPS: Absolutely. And I think we’ll see a resurgence of popularity in running this winter now that people won’t have access to gyms or treadmills.
BK: That’s good to hear.
BK: What makes you most hopeful for the start of a new year?
JPS: We’ve gone in a year from having a disease that no one ever heard of to already having multiple vaccines in the pipeline with around 95% efficacy. It shows the incredible power of science and these vaccines, as far as we can tell, are more effective than in our wildest dreams.