By Sue Tiffin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Fourteen additional variants of concern have been identified in COVID-19 cases in the region, that number more than doubling last week from five last Monday to 12 on Friday, and 14 by Monday. The cases are located in Northumberland County and City of Kawartha Lakes, identified as the N501Y variant, and were acquired outside the region, according to the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit.
Dr. Ian Gemmill, acting medical officer of health, spoke to the topic and provided the most updated numbers at that point on Feb. 24 at his regularly-scheduled weekly press conference. At that time, he mentioned five new variants of concern to the three prior cases, but later in the afternoon an additional case had been added. Three more were identified in the health unit’s Friday epidemiological report, an additional two in the March 1 report.
“The situation with VOCs can change quickly,” he said in comments shared by the health unit an hour after the press conference.
“The source of all of these VOCs are tied to contacts with others outside the HKPRDHU region,” Gemmill said in comments. “The nine VOCs involve three clusters and a single case … and in all these situations, these local VOCs are well under control as the people involved are isolating and limiting their contacts.”
In last week’s meeting, Gemmill said he did not have at that time the information about where the cases were located, nor which strain had been identified.
When it was noted by a reporter that people are concerned and want further information, Gemmill said:
“We need to assume that coronavirus is everywhere,” he said. “We need to assume that the variants could pop up anywhere. So far, they’ve all had the acquisition outside of our area, which means it’s not being transmitted in [the HKPR region]. I agree there’s a public interest in knowing which county it’s in, we’ll get that for you, but I think that people need to behave as though they could be exposed to this at any point. I think that’s a message I have to keep repeating, repeating, repeating, because it’s so key to the preventative measures.”
On Feb. 9, the region’s first identified variant of concern was reported. That case was linked to a resident in Port Hope, and later at a Feb. 17 press conference, Gemmill said two of that resident’s household contacts were also identified as having variant cases of COVID-19, noting that those individuals had been isolating.
“This is a controlled situation,” said Gemmill at that time. “Since they’ve all been quarantined, I’m not worried particularly about these cases.”
Across Ontario, Gemmill said at the Feb. 17 press conference, the proportion of positive cases constituted by the variants of concern are rising, and he was hearing “worrisome chatter” about it being identified in other parts of Ontario.
“We have been affected, but in a very minor way, but this is becoming a big issue across the province of Ontario,” he said.
The variants are more transmissible than the original virus, and can amplify cases because of the ease in which they spread, which has led to speculation about a potential third wave and lockdown to protect hospital capacity.
“Anything is possible, but I’ll be completely forthright with you, the way this variant is behaving, the one [identified in] the U.K. primarily, I’m not sure we’re going to have control of it, so it could theoretically replace the original virus and become the dominant one, and then it’s going to be a lot more difficult to control,” said Gemmill.
As of the March 1 HKPRD health unit update, Haliburton County has zero confirmed cases of COVID-19, with one current high-risk contact. City of Kawartha Lakes currently has 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 40 high-risk contacts, and Northumberland County has 21 current cases of COVID-19 and 58 high-risk contacts.
“What is worrisome is the continuing spread of coronavirus variants across Ontario,” said Gemmill in Feb. 24 comments. “We are likely to see more of these VOCs in our region, so the need to take public health prevention measures continues to be important until more people are vaccinated.”