Canada’s top doctors say they’re striving for a best-case scenario but preparing for the worst: a so-called “fall peak” of COVID-19 cases across the country that threatens to overwhelm the public health-care system.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam and deputy public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo presented new modelling on the coronavirus on Friday, flagging a potential surge in cases several times worse than what we’ve seen so far in Canada.

Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) documents show officials are aiming for a “slow burn” scenario, in which the number of cases remains low, so that the public health-care system can deal with the influx of patients. But officials are also planning for a “reasonable worst-case scenario,” where a fall spike in infections is followed by ongoing peaks and valleys, putting excessive demands on the health system.

Tam noted that this fall’s surge will coincide with the flu and cold season, potentially putting added strains on hospitals and other health resources.

She declined to put a figure on what the caseload might look like, but said health authorities should plan for “something that’s at least several times worse than your previous experience.” There is much that’s still not known about COVID-19, including whether it accelerates with seasonality.

WATCH | Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam on potential COVID-19 surge:

Tam said what actions Canadians take now will determine how transmissions unfold in the fall.

“Continuing to build up capacity across our health, public health and laboratory systems while urging all Canadians to continue with public health practices will give us the best chance of keeping the epidemic on a slow burn, while preparing us in the event of a need to rapidly ramp up response measures for possible larger resurgence,” Tam said.

The number of new cases reported daily has increased in recent weeks, with the highest rate of infection among people aged 20-39 years old.

As businesses and schools reopen and more people return to the workplace, Tam stressed that Canadians must be vigilant in following public health guidelines to avoid a major rebound.

Key measures to limiting outbreaks are:

Njoo said about 1.9 million people have downloaded Canada’s COVID-19 exposure notification app, and he urged people to take part, especially young people who go to pubs and nightclubs.

In the short term, PHAC says the case load could grow to between 121,650 and 127,740 by Aug. 23, and the number of deaths could climb to between 8,980 to 9,115.

The majority of cases have been reported in Ontario and Quebec, while Nunavut has not recorded a single case.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu’s office says the government knows a second wave of COVID-19 is possible, and is making appropriate preparations.

“That’s why we’ve been careful in how we’ve started to lift some public health measures, and why we’ve worked with the provinces and territories to establish a supply of PPE and medical supplies to keep Canadians safe,” Hajdu’s spokesperson Cole Davidson said in a statement.

“Deliveries of PPE and medical supplies continue to arrive at PHAC warehouses from both domestic and international suppliers while we work with provinces and territories to prepare for future needs, including the administration of potential vaccines and a possible second wave.”

Today’s modelling information is not intended to predict what will happen, but to provide a snapshot of what could happen in certain scenarios. It projects that the “peaks and valleys” could continue through 2022.

It comes as anxiety increases about potential outbreaks as students return to classrooms in the coming weeks.

British Columbia released its own modelling Thursday, showing the province’s COVID-19 curve is now climbing at a higher rate than the initial outbreak in March, and suggesting a second wave could be bigger than the first by September.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said the province’s contact-tracing efforts could help reduce the number of transmissions. 

Canada’s top doctor has said while Canada has been successful at slowing the spread of COVID-19, there could be a resurgence if Canadians don’t strictly follow public health guidelines on physical distancing, hand-washing and limiting mass gatherings.

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