By Sue Tiffin
The following are brief reports from a Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit press conference with medical officer of health Dr. Natalie Bocking, held virtually May 19.
In her introductory statement, Bocking advised residents aim to keep COVID-19 case numbers low to work toward the lifting of the third provincial lockdown currently in place.
“I know that this weekend is a long weekend,” she said. “It’s typically a reason where, you know, a bit of an Ontario tradition, people go to their cottages, they go to their camps, they get together for barbecues, they’re getting together with family, they’re getting together with friends. I think it’s particularly frustrating and trying for individuals and families to see the nice weather, to see how enticing the lakes are right now, and the beaches, and I think I would remind people and ask people to not gather outside of your household.”
“We know that in the past year when we have had holiday week-ends, or holiday periods, that we have seen spikes after that time period when people have gathered outside of their households. And we don’t want to be seeing that two weeks from now, which will be around the time that the province will be deciding whether to lift the stay at home order or extend it. I think if we’re going to get through the rest of this lockdown period, we all want to be doing our bit to ensure the case numbers are as low as possible, and preventing any further transmission of COVID-19.”
Bocking recommended public health measures that have been in place – masking, distancing, hand hygiene – and suggested against gathering.
“Please remember – still go outside, enjoy the fresh air, be active, but do it in a safe way that keeps you and your households apart from other households and I think hopefully we’ll be able to then enjoy the rest of the summer when it comes, in ways that we’re more familiar with,” she said.
Second doses available locally after A.J. LaRue closure
As reported in last week’s Echo, the mass vaccination clinic in Haliburton will close at the end of this month. The health unit has told the Echo that those who received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose at the A.J. LaRue community centre will still be able to get their second dose in the county.
“The second doses could be provided at the other mass immunization clinic site at the S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena in Minden, through primary care providers, or at local pharmacies,” said a representative from the health unit. “People who have registered through the provincial booking system will have a second dose appointment automatically generated. If they booked their doses at the Haliburton clinic site, the location will be changed and they will be notified by mail or email. Information will also be posted on the Health Unit website. Rest assured, anyone who needs a second dose will be able to get one.”
It is not yet known if the date and time of second vaccine appointments already booked will remain the same.
Second doses, more vaccine, more appointments, more eligibility coming soon
The health unit has received many questions related to when and how people can receive their second dose, especially from those who received a vaccine outside of the provincial health booking system.
“I know it’s anxiety-provoking knowing you’ll be due for your second dose at the 16-week mark and not knowing for sure where you’re going to get it, and when,” she said.
In Northumberland County, where some of the first vaccines were administered, Bocking said the health unit was working with the county, which was taking on the task of notifying people of their second appointment.
The provincial booking system is being updated so that people can use the system to book their second appointment if they don’t have one already scheduled, said Bocking.
“That feature is not yet available and that has been the challenge so far,” she said. “We have been told by the province … the feature will become available at end of the month or early June. That will be the route for individuals to book their second appointment.”
All individuals aged 18 and older throughout the province are eligible to book their first dose of vaccine now, and the health unit is working with school boards in the region to determine the best way to roll-out the youth immunization strategy for those 12 to 17 and their families, set to start in June.
“I know there is lots of demand for COVID-19 appointments across our region and some frustration associated with not being able to get an appointment right now for a COVID-19 vaccination,” she said. “Our supply has increased a little bit, and it is slowly increasing. At the same time, eligibility expanded quite significantly. So, we still have a mismatch in terms of the number of people really wanting and asking for vaccination, and the amount of vaccine supply that’s available. It’s improving and this mismatch is slowly going to normalize but it’s going to be a couple of weeks yet before we see greater availability of appointments. As soon as we book a clinic with new appointments, often those appointments are gone within 24 hours.”
Bocking was asked about vaccine supply, and at what point it would normalize after weeks of low supply and not enough doses being available in the region to meet demand.
“I don’t have the magic number,” she said. “Part of what comes into this equation right now is that we’re going to have a period of time where we’re overlapping second doses and first doses. As well, there’s been different priority populations that have been put out by the province, so for example, the youth immunization strategy [for those 12 to 17] now starts to eat into some of the doses that were available for the 18 and older. So I think we’re balancing all of these things that really throughout the month of June are coming to be around the same time.”
Bocking said she hoped by August to see vaccine availability increase or improve significantly.
Vaccines advised for children, once approved in trials
With the Pfizer vaccine being approved after trials for the 12 – 17 age group, and further trials underway for younger kids, Bocking said it would be recommended for kids to be vaccinated too.
“As a parent I don’t have children in that age group but I would be looking to have my children receive the vaccine,” said Bocking.
“We have seen certainly that youth in some ways can become drivers of transmission with the gatherings they have and throughout households,” said Bocking. “I know we experienced two relatively large high school-related outbreaks [in the health unit region]. While there’s not a lot of transmission in schools we still have a lot of gatherings outside of schools. So as we see the larger segments of our population well, having good vaccine coverage, I think it will be really important to see it across the whole population.”
Bocking said in terms of good coverage for the whole population, it was expected that at least 70 per cent of the population would need to be vaccinated. Generally trials begin with healthy adults, more vulnerable age groups, then move down to youth and children.
“Children are often one of the last groups the vaccine is trialled in, just to ensure there have been no safety signals that have come up so far,” she said. “Some pediatricians might argue that they should have been one of the first. We really want to be offer that vaccine in that age group.”
Document advises summer camps on safety protocol
Bocking said the health unit has routinely worked annually with camp operators around other public health issues, including water access and outbreaks related to other things like gastrointestinal infections. She noted the Ministry of Health had distributed a guidance document related to COVID-19 precautions camps will need to have in place this summer in order to operate safely.
“I don’t have all of those details in front of me but I do know it builds on a lot of the precautions we’ve seen in other places related to, for example, cohorting, so keeping certain campers and staff together in cohorts without mixing in other areas, related to active screening, related to hand hygiene, these sorts of things. The guidance document which will be used by camp operators and then by public health has some pretty specific things that public health will be looking for and checking on.”
Each summer, camps submit a camp health and safety plan, and this year Bocking said that plan is expected to have a COVID-19 specific health and safety plan as well.
“I know a lot of work is going on to ensure that camps can be operated as safe as we possibly can in this era of COVID-19,” said Bocking.
When asked by a reporter how it might be possible to hold camp with kids who haven’t yet been approved age-wise for vaccination, Bocking said some of the measures will ask campers to isolate for 14 days prior to attending camp, undergoing testing prior to or during camp and controlling movement in and out of the camp.
“I know a lot of thought has been put into this, and part of this has come back to weighing the risks and benefits in terms of the benefits to children, especially with schools moved to virtual learning for such a long time and then risks of COVID, it being introduced in that setting,” she said. “Definitely still challenges. Camps didn’t operate last summer, so I think this summer some of those measures will be new but I know a lot of thought has gone into it with very specific requirements and guidance.”
Navigating conflict between vaccinated and unvaccinated family members
When asked about how people who are vaccinated might deal with stress in gathering with those who aren’t vaccinated, Bocking said she understood the challenges people were facing.
“It’s challenging because in the end, it’s just about keeping our families safe, right?,” said Bocking. “So I think when family members are concerned, either about a family member or a close friend that doesn’t want to receive the vaccine, we automatically go to, but we want to make sure that you’re well, we want to make sure our family’s well. I can understand that emotional challenge around that because we’re all in this together.”
Bocking said the health unit was willing to support people who need accurate information about vaccinations.
“I think we know that for individuals that have some concerns or questions about vaccines, sometimes it might be just a concern about them having accurate information, so we can certainly support readers and family members to make sure they have accurate information about vaccines that they can share with their family members or other friends if they have questions about vaccine.”
Eventually, perhaps in a couple of months, there might be public measures that change when more people are vaccinated, said Bocking.
“And we might reach a point in time where there’s different measures in place if someone’s vaccinated or not vaccinated in terms of, whether it’s mask wearing or that sort of thing,” she said. “I know they’re really challenging conversations and I think I would just encourage people to have those conversations because the more we talk about it the more we can address any concerns that might be there, and continue to work together to keep everybody healthy and well.”