By Sue Tiffin
The following are brief reports from a Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge (HKPR) district health unit press conference with medical officer of health Dr. Natalie Bocking, held virtually Dec. 15 and press releases issued Dec. 15 and Dec.17.
After the provincial government announced new restrictions to capacity limits on Dec. 17, that afternoon the health unit sent a letter of instruction to employers encouraging them to put measures in place to help prevent further spread of COVID-19. The province was reporting an increasing surge in confirmed cases of the virus due to the Omicron variant, that number topping 4,000 on Dec. 19. In the past two weeks, 126 cases have been confirmed within the HKPR region.
“I am worried that we are already seeing a surge of cases in advance of the holiday season,” said Bocking in the press release. “Our goal is to reduce the number of people working in close proximity to help halt any further spread. Broad measures are required as there is no one sector that is causing this sharp increase in local cases.”
In her letter to employers, Bocking recommends that all employers move all employees to work remotely, unless their work requires them to be on-site at the workplace and limit all on-site interactions, including conducting meetings virtually when feasible to do so. Staff required to work on-site should be actively screened for symptoms of COVID-19, be physically distanced by at least two metres when at workstations, wear tightly fitting masks when moving throughout the workplace, stagger lunches and breaks to maximize distance and minimize interactions and ensure that lunchrooms and break areas are arranged and posted with a maximum occupancy to maintain physical distance between employees.
“While these measures will not stop an upcoming Omicron surge, the goal is to interrupt and slow down transmission of the virus as much as possible,” Dr. Bocking said. “We need to work together to prevent severe illness from COVID and protect our health care system from further strain.”
Potential case of Omicron variant identified in HKPR region
On Dec. 15, the health unit announced they had been notified that initial screening of a local resident who has COVID-19 has shown the person has the markers consistent with the Omicron variant.
Although Omicron has not yet been confirmed in this individual, Bocking said this screening means it is “highly likely” that this is an Omicron variant infection. This individual lives in Northumberland County, making this the first potential case of Omicron identified in a resident of the health unit’s region.
“The confirmation that the Omicron variant has been detected in our area is not unexpected given we have seen cases in our neighbouring health unit areas,” Bocking said. “While we do not want people to panic, we do want to highlight the continued need for everyone to be vigilant in following public health measures to help protect themselves and their families from the spread of the virus.”
The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa and the first case was identified in Ontario at the end of November. Additional details on the variant are still being gathered and reviewed but it has been determined that it has a higher transmissibility than the Delta variant and is expected that Omicron will be the dominant strain in the province in the coming weeks, if not sooner.
Preliminary information is also showing that those with Omicron are less ill with the virus, but that the current vaccines are less effective against this variant. For this reason, household members of unvaccinated contacts of cases will also be required to quarantine until negative test results are available.
Hockey team outbreaks
“Across multiple health unit jurisdictions, over the last couple of weeks, we have had a number of outbreaks identified among hockey teams, mostly associated with hockey tournaments,” Bocking said. “There does not seem to be transmission as much on the ice as much as there is in hotels or other settings where teams might interact with other teams, or you have parents/guardians of players that are interacting with each other, but we have seen multiple tournaments associated with increased COVID case numbers. And so I think as we look at the next couple of weeks and we look at the introduction of the Omicron variant, we are highly encouraging [everyone] to be quite cautious in their interactions and re-evaluating current restrictions related to activities.”
By the numbers
As of the Dec. 15 briefing, 2,686 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the HKPR region since the pandemic began. At the time of the briefing there were 59 active cases – two in Haliburton County, 36 in City of Kawartha Lakes and 21 in Northumberland County – and 135 high-risk contacts.
The incidence rate was 36.2 per 100,000 people – three weeks ago, that was five cases per 100,000, and Bocking noted that in Kingston where there has been exponential growth and a nation-high surge, the incidence rate was 350 cases per 100,000.
“In summary, if I had to describe really what we’re seeing in terms of cases locally, we are seeing a steady increase now associated with both a higher number of outbreaks, but also a higher number of cases in total, including broader community transmission of COVID-19,” Bocking said.
In the 14 days prior to the briefing, 115 cases or 23 per cent were identified in those aged zero to nine, and 16 per cent were identified in those aged 40 to 49.
“We have continued to see a higher proportion of cases among younger age groups and I think that is also reflected in our outbreaks that are associated with hockey team(s) in that age group and elementary school outbreaks,” said Bocking, who later noted: “At this point we have 22 school classes and four bus cohorts that have been dismissed and isolating at home and three sports teams not actively participating.”
Of the cases identified in the past two weeks, 30 per cent were household contacts, 18 per cent were close contacts and 18 per cent had no known source.
Pediatric vaccination slowing down
In the past two weeks, 85 per cent of those aged 12 and older in the region have received two doses of vaccine, and 87.3 per cent had received one dose, while among the age five to 11 group, 24.3 per cent have received their first dose.
“When COVID-19 eligibility first opened up for five to 11 year-olds, we did see very good uptake, appointments filled quickly and clinics were full,” Bocking said. “After about the first two weeks that has calmed significantly and we see much slower uptake among this age group, or among the parents or guardians that are signing them up to be vaccinated. This isn’t surprising, we know that parents and guardians are extra cautious in terms of children. This is the pattern, kind of historically when other new vaccinations are introduced for this age group. We do know that there continues to be close attention paid to the safety of the vaccine and effectiveness in this age group and it continues to demonstrate a good safety profile, and it’s certainly – as indicated by the general numbers we see – important to continue to offer vaccines for this age group.”
Booster eligibility opened up for those 18 and older as of Dec. 20, and Bocking said an additional 4,000 appointments would be opening this week, with potentially additional clinics added.