By Sue Tiffin
The following are brief reports from a Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit press conference held virtually Feb. 10.
As of Feb. 16, Ontario’s stay-at-home orders will be lifted and public health unit regions will move back into Ontario’s COVID-19 Response Framework, under green, yellow, orange, red or grey colour codes that each have different levels of public health restrictions.
“That’s, I think, a hopeful sign but I do want to say now, and I’ll say it again, and again, and again, that this is a change in approach to control the virus, provincially, but it does not mean in any way that the risk out there is diminished,” said Dr. Ian Gemmill, HKPRDHU acting medical officer of health. “Even though, for example, a stay-at-home order is not in place, I am still strongly encouraging people to stay at home unless they have a reason not to be there, so that means things like getting groceries, and I guess now, probably hair salons will be open, so that’s a reason but I’m asking people to go from home, to their appointment, and home again, so that we’re not doing anything to increase the transmission of this virus until such time as we’re able to get vaccines into arms which is still weeks away.”
Gemmill said the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge public health unit was expecting to be designated in the orange section of the colour-coding system. That was confirmed on Friday [Feb. 12].
Gemmill said the region had seen a small uptick in cases, which he hoped would not continue to increase as the lockdown measures were relaxed, and said staying at home was the “prudent” thing to do despite the order being lifted.
“The change in the emergency order and the change in the stay-at-home order, do not change the virus out there, they do not change the epidemiology, they do not change the risk,” he said.
Informal social gatherings and big family gatherings were to be avoided, said Gemmill, noting the public health unit was currently dealing with one large family outbreak as a result of a birthday party. He advised ski hills should be used by local residents to the area as opposed to “people travelling all over the province,” and strongly discouraged sports events such as hockey, which he said he would not like to have happen even if it’s allowed.
“I am really pleading with people, even though it is no longer a legal requirement to stay at home, I’m asking that people continue to behave this way, because this is the only way we’re going to keep this virus in check until we can get vaccine in arms over the next couple of months or so,” he said. “Let’s not blow this by jumping the gun, thinking that just because the restrictions are relaxed, everything’s 100 per cent now, it’s not. It’s absolutely not. And I am very worried that we might have, if people don’t respect what we call advice now, rather than requirements, that we may have more cases in the next few weeks.”
He reiterated numerous times during last week’s press conference that his “strong advice,” is to not gather, and not travel.
“I want to say really strongly to our population that 99 per cent of our population is still susceptible,” he said. “Almost 99 per cent of our population has not had this infection, and that means that if they’re exposed, they’re susceptible, and they’re quite likely to become ill.”
Variant reported in health unit region
At the Feb. 10 media briefing, Gemmill said there has, as of Feb. 9, been one documented instance in the health unit’s region – in Northumberland County – in which a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a resident of Port Hope was discovered to be a variant, though which variant has not, at press time, been confirmed. The person affected is in isolation and contacts have all been quarantined.
Three COVID-19 variants of concern – one first identified in the United Kingdom in Nov. 2020, a South African variant identified in Dec. 2020 and a variant first detected in Brazilian travellers in Japan in Jan. 2021 – two which are known to be spreading in Canada, have been monitored over the past few months, due in part to their being highly transmissible.
Gemmill said though there has been one case of the variant being detected locally, there will be more, noting the variants of concern are likely to become the predominant strains.
“Pretty much inevitable, these variants are going to be more and more prevalent as time goes on, as you’ve heard,” he said. “The fact that we’ve had one, I’m not really surprised.”
In a press release, Gemmill said the identification of the variant in the community means that it is more important than ever that residents continue to be vigilant and follow the public health measures to help stop the spread of the virus.
Vaccine priority continues to be long-term care residents
Residents at Extendicare, Highland Wood and Hyland Crest long-term care homes have at this point received their first of two vaccines, the second which can be administered no earlier than the first week of March to ensure length of time between doses and efficacy. Gemmill was asked if, when more vaccines are available in the area, long-term care residents would receive their second dose or if healthcare workers would receive their first dose.
“The only way we are going to control these infections and outbreaks at long-term care is to get everyone as immunized as we possibly can,” said Gemmill. For that reason, he said that it would make sense to ensure that when more vaccines come in, priority is given to the second shot for residents prior to the next group of people, though he said another idea might be to give initial doses of vaccine to more people.
“I hope we have enough vaccine at that point in time … that this will not be an issue,” said Gemmill. “But yes, if we are faced with not that much vaccine, I would say that to protect those people in long-term care and to stop these outbreaks, which are … extremely worrisome for the residents, extremely worrisome for the family, hugely stressful for the people who are looking after people in long-term care, for all of these reasons we have to get these things stopped.”
Public invited to ‘Talk with the Doc’ virtual town hall
Dr. Gemmill, acting medical officer of health for the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District health unit, hosted the health unit’s first ‘Talk with the Doc’ virtual town hall on Tuesday, Feb. 16.
During the online information session, Gemmill provided updates on COVID-19 topics including local cases and transmission rates, local vaccine roll-out plans, and the health unit’s pandemic response and related topics, as well as answered questions from those tuning in.
“I would like to reach as many people as possible and hear as many questions as possible, not only to help people know what’s going on with this pandemic, but also so I can hear what the concerns are out there,” said Gemmill while promoting the event during last week’s press conference.
A second virtual town hall will be held Tuesday, March 2, from 1 to 2 p.m.
Gemmill said if the session was popular, it could be held on a regular basis. The town halls will also be uploaded after live events to the health unit’s YouTube channel for those who can’t attend in real-time.