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 Jan. 19 and press releases from the public health unit.
A press release issued by Bocking last Friday urged residents to get their COVID-19 vaccine booster if they had not done so yet. She noted that in the first 19 days of the new year, there have been seven deaths due to COVID-19 – six of these individuals were 65 years of age and older, and only one of the six individuals had received a booster dose, with some being unvaccinated.
“A booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine greatly improves protection against the Omicron variant compared to just two doses (or one or none),” said Bocking. “Boosters reduce your risk of serious illness from Omicron and lessen the chance you will end up in hospital or the ICU. If you are 65 years of age or older, you’re more vulnerable to COVID-19, so an extra dose of protection is needed now.”
Bocking said that while the uptake of COVID-19 booster doses has been strong, interest is starting to level off.
“This is worrisome and requires a call to arms,” she said. “If you are a senior with only two doses, please get your third. If you have an older family member or loved one who is not fully protected, encourage and support them to get a booster dose. Vaccines remain the best way to slow the spread of Omicron and ease the pressure on the health care system.”
Anyone 50 years old or older who needs a first, second or booster dose of vaccine is now able to walk into any vaccination clinic between 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Appointments can also be booked online at www.ontario.ca/bookvaccine or by phone at 1-833-943-3900. For clinic dates and locations, rides to a clinic site and other information, visit www.hkpr.on.ca or call 1-866-888-4577, ext. 5020.
Balancing COVID-19 and isolation risks
The health unit has issued revised, interim guidance on when residents of area long-term care and retirement homes need to isolate in a COVID-19 outbreak.
“This comes amid rising concerns about the increased risk to the physical and mental health of residents who have been placed in isolation if their long-term care facility or retirement home has been declared in outbreak,” reads a press release issued Jan. 19.
While public health units follow provincial guidance for case, contact and outbreak management of COVID-19, there is some discretion to adapt these to unique situations in their local regions, reads the press release. The interim health unit guidance includes directions for facilities with cases identified only among staff, as well as updated recommendations on testing and isolation for residents at homes with suspect outbreaks. The change could allow residents to be released from isolation sooner if certain requirements are met.
“These changes are meant to strike a balance between the negative impacts of strict outbreak measures, like isolation, and the continuing need to protect older residents from COVID-19,” said Bocking. “COVID-19 has changed from the first wave, meaning we also need to change our response. At this point in the pandemic, most residents of long-term care and retirement homes are highly vaccinated. We’re also seeing less illness and transmission of COVID-19 in these facilities. While there is an obligation to protect those most vulnerable to the virus, we know that strict isolation measures can also negatively affect residents.”
Reaching a peak
“Are we starting to peak, is this starting to level off in terms of activity with this wave of Omicron?,” said Bocking. “I do think it’s too early to say for our region. A couple of things that are looking promising … our test positivity has come down, which I think is one of the indicators that we can look at. The number of outbreaks that are being newly declared each day has slowed. We were at several days where we were seeing several outbreaks being declared and this seems to be slowing a little bit. I think we can also look to neighbouring jurisdictions and what’s happening in other areas of the province.”
Bocking said the HKPRD region is about a week behind neighbouring jurisdictions.
“As a more rural region, it takes a little bit longer for us to start to see wider spread of COVID-19 activity so we don’t tend to peak or plateau at the same time as some of these other jurisdictions. But we know as we watch their trends that we will be following soon as well.”
Bocking said there were promising indicators that suggested we were reaching a peak in the fifth wave, noting that modelling had predicted that by the end of January that was a possibility.
“Too soon to tell for sure, but I do think we have reason to have some optimism and looking forward to coming out on the other side of this wave,” she said.
By the numbers
Since the start of the pandemic, the region has confirmed 5,366 cases of COVID-19 in residents. At the time of the briefing, there were 349 lab-confirmed active cases, and the seven-day incident rate was decreased to about 254.8 cases per 100,000 people, which Bocking acknowledged was an underestimate of the broader activity level of COVID-19 infection due to a change in testing guidelines which limited general population access to PCR tests.
“I don’t think we know for sure whether or not the decrease in that weekly incidence rate, how much is just an underestimate as a result of the change to PCR testing, and how much might be a reflection of starting to see a plateau,” said Bocking.
The test positivity rate had decreased, and was recorded at 13.3 per cent, the highest recorded having been about 22 per cent.
In the past 14 days at the time of briefing, 1,078 cases of COVID-19 have been reported. About 19 per cent of those cases were identified in those among the 20-to-29 age group, and 16 per cent were among the 30-to-39 age group. In the past two weeks there have been 21 admissions to hospital related to COVID-19, two of those were residents of long-term care homes, 11 were among individuals that were not vaccinated – about 52 per cent – and 17 of those hospital admissions among individuals aged 70 and over.
“[There’s] more severe illness resulting in hospital admission largely among older populations, certainly a risk of higher risk of several outcomes for those individuals not vaccinated, and certainly some risk with two doses of vaccine and that decreases even further with a booster dose of vaccine,” said Bocking.
Five people had been admitted to ICU in the past two weeks, three of those people were unvaccinated.
Six deaths have occurred in the past two weeks, three were residents at long-term care homes. Of those deaths, three were individuals who were not vaccinated, two had had two doses of vaccine while one person who had received their booster shot. Five of the deaths were individuals aged 70 and over.
GO-VAXX bus returns
The GO-VAXX bus is once again rolling into the area but individuals who wish to be vaccinated must book their bus appointment in advance. Appointments can be booked starting at 8 a.m. the day before the mobile clinic at the website noted at the beginning of this article, or by calling 1-833-943-3900.
Clinics will run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Three stops are scheduled for Haliburton County:
Saturday, Jan. 29 – A.J. LaRue Arena, 728 Mountain St, Haliburton
Saturday, Feb. 5 – Lloyd Watson Community Centre, 2249 Loop Rd, Wilberforce
Saturday, Feb. 12 – A.J. LaRue Arena, 728 Mountain St, Haliburton