Two women walk along the deserted path beside Niagara Falls on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Can ‘circuit breaker’ lockdowns slow COVID-19 spread or are they a band-aid solution?

Can ‘circuit breaker’ lockdowns slow COVID-19 spread or are they a band-aid solution?

Medical professionals around Canada have been calling for stricter restrictions this week to curb the unruly spread of COVID-19 in parts of the country.

And while some are using a new term in advocating for “circuit breaker” lockdowns, experts say the concept isn’t really different from what we’ve already experienced throughout the pandemic.

The idea is a limited intervention that could break the chain of transmission and give health-care and COVID management systems, including testing and contact tracing, some breathing room.

But the definition of a circuit breaker lockdown can be quite fluid, says Dr. Alexander Wong, an infectious disease expert with the University of Saskatchewan.

It doesn’t necessarily have to resemble the complete shutdown we dealt with back in March, he said. And the time frame on the restrictive period can vary as well.

“It depends on where transmission is happening locally,” Wong said. “It’s not really a uniform one-size-fits-all approach.”

Whether a province or jurisdiction decides on a circuit breaker or lengthy lockdown, Wong says restrictions need to be implemented soon as Canada’s case counts continue to rise at an alarming pace.

There were about 5,500 cases on Thursday, a new national daily record.

Updated measures have been placed in parts of the country including Alberta, where a two-week ban on indoor fitness classes and team sports and further restaurant restrictions went into effect Friday.

Manitoba, the province with the highest number of recent cases per capita, closed non-essential businesses and banned social gatherings earlier this week, while parts of Ontario and Quebec recently introduced temporary lockdown measures on establishments like gyms and restaurants.

University of Ottawa epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan called all of those examples of circuit breaker shutdowns.

He says circuit breakers “can be a powerful tool,” but success depends on what a jurisdiction wants to get out of it.

If the goal is to alleviate pressure in hospitals and get contact tracing efforts back on track, Deonandan said a quick lockdown will help.

“But if your goal is to get cases down to single digits so you can reopen the economy in its entirety, it’s insufficient,” he said.

“The question is, what’s the bang for your buck? And maybe you should be spending that buck elsewhere in a longer-term strategy.”

A circuit breaker shutdown would need to last at least two weeks, because of the length of the virus’s infection period.

But it could last significantly longer, such as a strict lockdown in Melbourne, Australia which stretched past 100 days before ending last month.

Dr. Ross Upshur, a professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health, says ideal time frame is hard to determine since the lag between infection and illness can be weeks with the coronavirus.

“I hope this has really sunk into the public’s mind — case counts you’re seeing today are reflecting forces from weeks ago. And mortality and morbidity is even further lagged from there,” he said.

“But the higher the case count, the greater amount of transmission that’s going on in the community, and the harder it gets to do the contact tracing and isolation required to bring it under control.”

Shorter circuit breakers have worked in parts of the world, and Deonandan pointed to a 12-day shutdown in Auckland, New Zealand in August.

The difference there, however, was that numbers were already fairly low, and the lockdown was put into effect in order to “snuff out those last nagging cases of community transmission.”

Wong says the idea of putting a time frame on a lockdown measure makes it more “psychologically palatable.”

But there’s no guarantee that more restrictions won’t be needed, he cautioned.

Upshur worries assigning a time limit to lockdown measures could be “a recipe for disappointment” if people fixate on the end date.

That would be especially worrisome if further cycles of lockdown periods are needed.

“We have to choose our poison of understanding, so to speak,” he said. “We can either believe firmly in time frames and then be disappointed, potentially. Or we can say: ‘OK, this is something we’re going to have to manage as data comes in.’”

A constant cycle of closing and reopening parts of society would also have negative impacts on the economy, says Karim Bardeesy, a public policy and economics expert with Ryerson University.

Businesses trying to plan out inventory and payroll would fare better if they weren’t fluctuating between lockdown periods, he said.

An indefinite shutdown may be preferable, as long as there is some form of government assistance going along with that.

“If there’s longer-term income supports and more commitment from governments … then that makes it easier to do a longer-term approach that flattens the curve now without needing to cycle back and forth,” Bardeesy said. “So longer periods of fairly aggressive measures are probably what’s needed.”

Deonandan says a short circuit breaker followed by a period of reopening could feel “less painful” than a full fledged lockdown, but it’s important to remember that one quick shutdown likely won’t cut it.

“The question before us is, while the darkness lasts until the vaccine gives us light, do we want a series of recurring circuit breakers? Or do we want a hard painful suppression followed by something resembling an open economy?”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2020.

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Conservatives push for parliamentary committee study into failed vaccine deal

OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives are calling for a parliamentary committee to… Continue reading

Trail RCMP report three impaired driving investigations. Photo: Black Press file
New drunk driving rules allow police to impose tougher penalties immediately

New impaired driving regulations started on Tuesday

(Lacombe Express file photo)
Lacombe County holds the line on taxes

Staff hiring freeze planned for 2021 to make up for lost oil and gas revenue

Alberta premier Jason Kenney declared a public health state of emergency Tuesday and sweeping new measures as COVID-19 cases in the province continue to rise.  (photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta premier says hospitals stressed by COVID-19, more surgeries may be cancelled

EDMONTON — Premier Jason Kenney says Alberta’s largest hospitals are at 91… Continue reading

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

Toronto police respond to an incident at St. Michael’s College School, in Toronto, Nov. 19, 2018. The trial of a teen accused of sexually assaulting two students at a prestigious Toronto high school is set to resume today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin
Trial resumes for teen accused in St. Michael’s College School sex assault case

Defence lawyers for a teen accused of sexually assaulting two students at… Continue reading

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. The Trump administration is keeping silent about Canada blocking its plan to import prescription drugs from north of the border. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trump admin silent after Hajdu pushes back on U.S. plan to raid Canada’s drug cabinet

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Trump administration is keeping silent about Canada blocking… Continue reading

Quebec City mayor Regis Labeaume, right, speaks at the inauguration of a memorial to the 2017 mosque shooting, Tuesday, December 1, 2020 in Quebec City. From the left, Luce Pelletier, artist who designed the memorial, MP Joel Lightbound, Boufeldja Benabdallah, and MNA Joelle Boutin.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Quebec City’s memorial to 2017 mosque shooting victims symbolizes defeat of hatred

Quebec City has inaugurated a memorial to the victims of the 2017… Continue reading

A scene from last year’s Light the Night fundraiser at the Stettler Town and Country Museum. This year’s rendition is on a drive-through basis only, but it still promises to be a not-to-be-missed seasonal highlight. (Independent file photo)
Stettler Town and Country Museum hosts ‘Light the Night’

This year’s rendition is drive-through only, but will still prove to be a dazzling display

Opinion piece
Opinion: A down payment on recovery, details to come

Just to be clear: Justin Trudeau’s government has not acquired the ability… Continue reading

(Black Press File Photo)
Rimbey woman gathering Christmas gifts for seniors at Valleyview Manor

Margaret Tanasiuk says she doesn’t want anyone to feel forgotten on Christmas morning

Mike Miltimore, seen in Kamloops, B.C., in an undated handout photo, says the Gretsch electric guitar that a woman brought into his store is from 1955 and similar to one played by country music legend Chet Atkins before he developed his signature series of guitars. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Mike Miltimore
Guitar made in 1950s worth more than B.C. family imagined

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — When Renee Latheur decided to take an old guitar… Continue reading

Lewis Hamilton won the German Grand Prix after Sebastian Vettel crashed while leading near the end. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Hamilton positive for COVID-19, will miss F1’s Sakhir GP

SAKHIR, Bahrain — Seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton has tested positive… Continue reading

Most Read