/Benefits outweigh risks as restrictions lifted: MOH
Dr. Natalie Bocking, medical officer of health for Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District health unit, and Bill Eekhof, HKPRDHU communications officer at last week’s media briefing. /Screenshot from Feb. 23 HKPRDHU virtual meeting

Benefits outweigh risks as restrictions lifted: MOH

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 on Feb. 23.

When asked if she is comfortable with the provincial government’s accelerated timeline of lifting restrictions including vaccination mandates and capacity limits at businesses, Bocking noted the policy decisions being made are difficult for the government.

“We know that they are trying to weigh the risks and benefits,” she said. “We know there are risks lifting restrictions, that we could see increased COVID-19 activity as people have more contacts in their lives, there’s more opportunity for the virus to spread. We know however that there’s risks for maintaining restrictions and there’s harms for maintaining restrictions.”

She said it was important to find a balance where there is, “not an equal level of risk, but an acceptable level of risk.”

She said the primary goal of restrictions during the Omicron variant wave was to not overburden the healthcare system.

“I’m comfortable right now that the level of activity of Omicron that we’re seeing and the level of activity that might increase with lifting public health restrictions will not result in overwhelming our healthcare system the same way that we saw at the peak of Omicron or the peaks of other waves,” she said. “In that sense, the risks of lifting these measures are not as high as they used to be and the benefits of doing so are strong in that argument.”

Bocking did caution the public, and businesses, that COVID-19 activity remains, and continued to recommend mask-wearing, staying home while sick and vaccinations. 

“COVID-19 is going to continue to be with us, and the goal is to try to decrease transmission as much as we can in order to prevent those people most vulnerable to severe illness from becoming sick,” she said.

Preparing for the end of mask mandates 

Bocking said that lifting the mask mandate would depend on ongoing COVID-19 activity in the community, and the impact of lifting current restrictions such as capacity limits and proof of vaccination requirements.

“It’s quite prudent to continue this staged approach to see what the impact is in lifting some restrictions before easing all restrictions – we’ve seen that in other jurisdictions globally, this phased approach,” she said. 

Bocking said she has heard discussions that mask mandates could end provincially as early as within a month. 

“Personally that might be too soon,” she said. “I know people are tired of wearing masks but I think there is certainly a level of ongoing viral transmission in the community that they’re still an important protective measure in protecting our vulnerable community members. Some difficult decisions being made at a provincial level and we’ll continue to monitor really all of our indicators for COVID-19 activity at a community and a provincial level.” 

Plateaued, steady state of activity

Bocking said there has been a significant decrease from the peak of Omicron activity about a month ago but not down yet to the “very, very low activity” seen locally between the third and the most recent wave of COVID-19.  

She said while testing remains limited, other indicators are still being followed for a sense of COVID-19 transmission.

The health unit is now seeing about 20 to 30 new lab-confirmed cases per day, with a test positivity around 12 per cent. To put test positivity in perspective, she said at the peak of Omicron activity, it was 20 per cent, and prior to the dominance of the Omicron variant, test positivity rates in the region were two to three per cent. 

“We’re not down at the level we’d like to be but certainly an improvement from where we were at the peak of Omicron activity,” she said. 

New outbreaks are still being identified, at a decreased rate. At the time of the briefing there remained eight outbreaks in high-risk settings, three of those at long-term care homes. 

The viral signal at Lindsay and Cobourg sewersheds continued to decrease, and was significantly lower than at the peak of the most recent wave but was not quite down to baseline – or a very low level of activity.  

“All of these indicators together tell me certainly that Omicron is still present in the community, there is still ongoing transmission,” said Bocking. “It’s much better than where we were a month ago, and the impact that ongoing Omicron activity is having on our acute care system remains manageable, and the impact of ongoing transmission on public health services remains manageable. We will see some ongoing transmission for the next couple of weeks.”

By the numbers

Since Jan. 1, or the general dominance of the Omicron variant, Bocking said there has been 63 hospital admissions, 14 ICU admissions and 26 deaths in the region. 

Of those aged 70 and older, 85.6 per cent have had their booster dose; while 73.3 per cent of those 50 and older have had their booster dose of vaccine; and 60.5 per cent of those aged 18 and older have received their booster dose.

In the area, 48.1 per cent of kids aged five to 11, who have had access to COVID-19 vaccines since December, have had their first dose of vaccine.    

The next session with Dr. Bocking will take place in two weeks, on March 9 as the health unit’s media briefings move to being held twice a month rather than weekly.