What Are 'Circuit Breaker' Lockdowns? COVID-19 Experts Discuss Their Pros and Cons
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.”
‘Recipe for disappointment’
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.
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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.