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. 9.
“We are seeing multiple indicators that things are improving and that COVID-19 transmission is decreasing,” said Bocking. “[That’s] something we have been hesitant to say for sure but I think we do have multiple indicators that are looking like its moving in this direction, which really is a very welcome, welcome sign.”
At the time of the briefing, there were 184 active lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases, Bocking emphasizing that PCR testing remains limited to those who work or live in high-risk settings. A decrease in lab-confirmed cases has occurred throughout the region, down from greater than 100 or more cases identified per day to about 20 or 30 daily cases.
“Moving in the right direction,” said Bocking.
Test positivity has come down from about 12 per cent to 9.6 per cent and the HKPRD region is continuing to fare better than neighbouring jurisdictions, some of which still have test positivity rates higher than 10 per cent, said Bocking.
Nine outbreaks are currently in place, six of those at long-term care homes and the other three being at congregate settings or hospitals. Bocking said the health unit is now only declaring outbreaks in the highest risk settings, whereas before the Omicron wave outbreaks were also being declared within community settings, restaurants or among hockey teams, for example.
Tracking absenteeism in schools
Another factor Bocking said the health unit has been following to get a sense of overall general COVID-19 activity has been broader absenteeism in schools. She said the overall absenteeism percentage doesn’t necessarily mean kids are sick with COVID-19 or home with it. According to provincial guidelines, the health unit will send letters home if a school reaches a certain threshold of absences – 30 per cent – at this point a few weeks back into in-person learning, of the 60 publicly funded schools in the region, only two have received those letters.
“It’s really reassuring that we haven’t seen wider spread concerns related to absenteeism in schools, which I’m quite happy to report,” she said.
Wastewater surveillance in measuring viral activity in the Lindsay and Cobourg sewersheds has shown a relatively significant decline in viral activity, Bocking said.
“Again, leading to an overall much more optimistic picture,” she added.
As provincial restrictions begin to loosen as per the government’s reopening plan, Bocking said it might be possible to see a “slight increase” in COVID-19 infection.
“I don’t anticipate we’ll be going back to high numbers that we were seeing at the peak of this wave,” she said. “I think we should expect potentially a bit of plateauing, but [I’m] really reassured in terms of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel related to this Omicron wave.”
Impact of Omicron on morbidity, mortality
Bocking said looking at data from Jan.1 gives a sense of the Omicron wave impact, given that it was likely the dominant variant by the third week of December.
Since the beginning of the year, 59 residents throughout the HKPRD region have been admitted to the hospital, 14 individuals have required ICU admission and there have been 23 deaths related to COVID-19.
Bocking stressed again that the majority of hospital and ICU admissions and deaths have been among individuals who are not vaccinated at all.
“Sharing these numbers to try and continue to encourage those individuals who have not sought vaccination yet to still do so, there’s still plenty of opportunity, and to reassure and remind people that for those people who have been vaccinated, the important role that you have played in helping to prevent more serious outcomes associated with COVID-19 and to decrease the burden on our hospital system overall.”
Almost 50 per cent of deaths have been among individuals 80 and older, and among those admitted to hospital, close to 58 per cent have been over the age of 70.
COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on the lives of seniors in the community, said Bocking.
At this point in time, since Jan. 1, 8.5 per cent of local hospital admissions have been of residents from long-term care homes, and 10 deaths related to COVID-19 of long-term care residents have occurred.
“We certainly understand the Omicron variant to have a lower risk of severe illness, we’re certainly not seeing the same extent of severe illness and death associated with COVID-19 as we did in the first wave, because we have vaccinations now and because we understand the virus better and we’ve been able to put in layers of protections to keep our most vulnerable community members safe.”
Easy access to vaccination clinics
A booster dose does improve protection against COVID-19, specifically severe outcomes, said Bocking. She said the uptake of boosters across the province has contributed to preventing hospitalizations and death from Omicron.
Among those 70 and over across the HKPR region, 84.5 per cent have received their booster dose, while 72.3 per cent of people aged 50 and older have received their booster dose and 59.4 per cent of those aged 18 and older have received their booster dose.
Among kids aged five to 11, 47.4 per cent have received their first dose of vaccine.
Vaccination clinics are open for walk-ins at any time for any dose, for any aged individual, with both mRNA vaccines available at all of the clinics in the region.
A need for cautious optimism
“While things are improving it doesn’t mean we throw everything we’ve learned to the wind and pretend COVID’s not here because we know this is not a benign virus, it’s not mild by a long shot certainly for a large number of people so we need to be aware of that and work together to protect our most vulnerable community members,” said Bocking.
Bocking noted that over the past two years, the same cycle of making it through a wave, feeling optimistic and then having a new variant emerge has repeated.
“There’s certainly nothing right now to indicate that COVID is done,” she said. “I think we will continue to see COVID, but the key is how we’re able to manage COVID infections across the community and minimize the effect on the acute care system so we don’t have to cancel surgeries or limit other health services. It’s important to celebrate the small wins that we have and to be able to ease public health restrictions and hopefully look forward to a time where we won’t need public health restrictions because we’ll be managing COVID-19 on an ongoing basis and it doesn’t require drastic measures to prevent our acute system from becoming overwhelmed.”
As hard as the restrictions are, they do help to slow infection down, said Bocking.
“There are some things to celebrate that we’ve done well, some things to learn and some things to look forward to,” she said.