“I would absolutely wear a mask outside if I’m in a crowd like [Summerfest]”
Think the pandemic is over? Nothing but blue skies and rainbows in front of you?
Not so fast.
“We are unfortunately seeing an increase in infections, as well as hospitalizations, both across the province and here in Niagara,” said Dr. Mustafa Hirj, the region’s acting medical officer of health.
“Omicron’s new sub-variant, BA.5, appears to be widespread, the same virus driving new waves in Western Europe right now.”
The federal government’s Covid-19 Immunity Task Force has estimated that about 55% of Canadians have been infected with the virus since the start of the pandemic, and that 17.5 million have contracted Covid (primarily the Omicron strain ) during the five-month period from December 15, 2021 to May 15, 2022.
In terms of vigilance and measures to combat the latest wave, Hirji has three recommendations for local residents.
“Number one, absolutely, is to make sure you have three doses of the vaccine. In Niagara, only 62% of adults received three doses. Number two is said to be wearing masks in indoor spaces, a behavior that has really diminished over the past few weeks. And then the last part to highlight is about protecting those around you. When you are sick, stay home, isolate yourself from others and do not spread the infection.
Summer means more group gatherings and outdoor events (hello, Summerfest) and Hirji acknowledges that social distancing will be more difficult. But young partygoers should be aware.
“Unfortunately, it is young people who have been disproportionately affected by the latest wave of infections, largely because they have not been vaccinated at the same rate as the older population.”
By early July, about half of Niagara’s population had received three doses of the vaccine, while about 90% of people over the age of 80 had received three injections. Anyone over 60 is currently eligible for a fourth (second booster dose) as well.
As for how currently available vaccines will ward off Omicron’s latest mutation, Hirji is candid.
“We really don’t know,” he said. “It looks like the vaccines may be a little less effective, at least in terms of preventing infection. Vaccines always catch up with the current strain. When we develop a vaccine, we go through a period of clinical trials to provide data, which must be reviewed to be approved and licensed. A virus simply mutates and does not need to go through these tests. But overall, vaccines are very successful in preventing serious illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths.
Hirji referred to long-term care homes in Ontario, which had a high rate of infections and deaths at the start of the pandemic. Today, this trend has reversed, as the vaccination rate for vulnerable older people in these facilities is very high, with most having received four or even five doses of vaccine (a fifth vaccine is available for people whose the immune system is weakened).
“For people with weakened immune systems, vaccination really makes a difference,” Hirji said. “Even if you get a mild illness, you are much less likely to pass it on to others. The big thing I really want to point out is that this pandemic is not over. These waves of infection are going to keep coming until, as a society, we put in place longer term measures that will actually minimize the risk of infection – better indoor ventilation, paid sick leave , the modification of our holiday calendars. These adjustments will minimize the risks that can trigger large infection spikes.
And what about the crowds of revelers at the fast approaching Summerfest?
“I would absolutely wear a mask outside if I’m in a crowd like that. Of course,” Hirji said. “And I also personally wear a mask indoors in grocery stores and such, to protect myself and, just as importantly, to protect vulnerable people who might be around me.”
Active coronavirus cases in the region total 392, as reported on the Niagara Health website last Thursday, which is almost certain to be a significant undercount, given the current wide prevalence of home testing. The pandemic has officially claimed 566 lives in Niagara since it began.