In recent weeks, a seeming contradiction has emerged: States in the U.S. that have had little to no COVID-19 restrictions have gotten case counts under control, while in Canada there are provinces still struggling with a third wave despite having never fully reopened.
It has the potential to become fuel for anti-lockdown protesters: If those states have opened up and brought case counts down, why can’t we? Do lockdowns not work?
The reality, experts say, is that there are numerous other factors at play — from vaccination rates, to immunity from prior infections, to climate.
Last Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis invalidated all local emergency orders in the state, meaning there are now no restrictions and people are free to gather and hit the beach. The decision drew criticism from mayors, who saw their cities’ rules wiped out. In Texas, restrictions were lifted in early March, including opening businesses and lifting mask mandates.
Yet, paradoxically, both places seem to be doing alright in the spring wave of the pandemic.
Over the last week, Texas has had a rate of 53.2 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people; Florida’s rate is 126 per 100,000, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Meanwhile, Alberta’s seven-day case rate is 314 per 100,000 and Ontario’s is 148 per 100,000 people, according to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s epidemiological survey. Alberta has banned all indoor gatherings and closed patios and put strict limits on other outdoor gatherings, while Ontario is still under a stay-home order.
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Over the course of the pandemic, however, Canada’s overall case rate of around 3,300 per 100,000 people is dwarfed by the rates seen in Florida and Texas, which are both around 10,000 cases per 100,000 people. No state has an infection rate comparable to Canada, overall.
So why are lockdown-free states suddenly doing as well or better than locked-down provinces?
The simple explanation is the rate of vaccination, said Thomas Unnasch, a professor at the University of South Florida who studies diseases.
“It’s starting to get to a point where … the virus is running out of people to infect, so we’re really seeing a decline in the case numbers as a result,” Unnasch said.
In Florida, about 42 per cent of the population has had at least one dose of a vaccine; about 31 per cent are fully vaccinated. In Texas, 50 per cent have one dose, with 37 per cent fully vaccinated.
In contrast, Alberta has given one dose to 32 per cent of the population and just 6.8 per cent of people are fully vaccinated. In Ontario, about 38 per cent of the population has had one dose, and 2.7 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Community transmission, explains Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alberta, tends to drop when around 50 per cent of the population have some sort of immunity, whether that’s from vaccination or because of the number of people who already had COVID-19.
In Florida and Texas, that’s about 10 per cent of the population, with 2.2 million total cases in Florida and 2.9 million cases in Texas. In Alberta, though, just 4.8 per cent of the population (about 209,000 people) have had COVID-19, and in Ontario, that figure is even lower, at 3.4 per cent of the population (492,000).
With such enormous rates of infection seen earlier in the pandemic, Saxinger explained, at this point, the virus has fewer places to spread in Florida and Texas.
“It becomes easier to contain it to a lower level level of transmission,” Saxinger said. “So they’re just in a completely different place than we are.”
Even with the active case rates being lower in Florida and Texas than many parts of Canada, and the vaccination rates being substantially higher, death rates, both historic and current, are higher than north of the border.
In Canada, the overall death rate is 65 per 100,000; Alberta’s is 48 per 100,000 and Ontario’s is 56 per 100,000. Over the last seven days, the death rate in Canada, Alberta and Ontario is just one in 100,000.
Florida’s overall death rate is 166 per 100,000 and, in the last seven days, the rate is 2.2 per 100,000. In Texas, the overall death rate is 170 per 100,000 and in the last seven days, it’s one per 100,000 — on par with Canada’s death rate. (About half of the U.S. states have a seven-day death rate on par with or lower than Canada’s.)
Even Quebec, the worst-performing Canadian province for deaths, with 128 per 100,000 people, performed better than all but 13 U.S. states and all of the territories.
There have been, over the course of the pandemic, around 35,000 COVID-19 deaths in Florida and just shy of 50,000 deaths in Texas. Canada has had a total of 24,655 deaths.
There are other factors that have helped states like Florida and Texas get case rates under control, including good weather that encourages people to move outdoors.
“This is the prime time of the year here in Florida, right, in terms of weather,” said Unnasch. “People are outdoors a lot more, they’re not spending that much time inside, they’re not spending that much time crowded together.”
Whether people are at work, and under what conditions, as well as more complex factors, like seasonal variations and climate, may also impact cases. For example, humidity seems to make it more difficult for the virus to spread.
“Those are much more speculative than the partially immune from natural infection and vaccine-induced immunity group, which I think is probably the lion’s share of the difference that we’re seeing,” Saxinger said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Canada’s active case rate as its overall case rate. The Post regrets the error.
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