Provinces that acted faster had more success limiting spread of COVID-19, data shows

As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit many parts of the country, provinces that were quick to act with strict containment measures have been more successful in limiting the spread, a CBC News analysis has found.

Using data from Oxford University that tracks provincial government responses to the contagion, we see within Canada a trend that has been observed in other countries: when authorities are slower to respond to a rise in new cases, it becomes more difficult to bring the spread under control.

“It’s not just about the public health measures. It’s also the timing of implementation of those measures. The timing is one of the most crucial factors,” said Saverio Stranges, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Western University in London, Ont.

The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker evaluates governments based on several measures, including containment policies (travel restrictions, school closures), health policies (mask usage, testing programs), and economic policies (wage subsidies, debt relief).

After nearly 10 months of pandemic and two waves of infection, the data tells a clear story. Provinces that remained vigilant, particularly those in Atlantic Canada, avoided major outbreaks, while some that dropped their guards have struggled to contain surging case rates.

The ‘false self-confidence’ of the Prairies

Take, for example, the approaches and outcomes of Alberta and Manitoba, both of which have been hit by strong second waves of COVID-19. 

The animation below compares the provinces’ COVID-19 containment measures with their weekly case rates since September. Alberta waited to impose strict measures as its cases rose, spiking to the highest per-capita case rate in Canada so far. 

Manitoba, on the other hand, was quicker to react, and its COVID-19 case numbers plateaued sooner.

In July, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Newfoundland and Labrador created a bubble around the region that restricted travel from outside provinces. Those who lived within the Atlantic bubble could travel relatively freely, but outsiders were screened when entering and had to quarantine for 14 days. The agreement was suspended in late November as COVID-19 cases increased in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

The Atlantic bubble’s success was part luck

Experts interviewed by CBC News cautioned that there are significant limitations to making any direct comparisons between provinces, partly because there can be vast differences between factors such as health systems and population traits.

For example, outbreaks were more common in more populated areas, so provinces with smaller population centres had an easier task, Furness said.

“It’s not a level playing field,” he said.

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