The following are brief reports from a Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District health unit press conference held March 9 with medical officer of health Dr. Natalie Bocking.
By Sue Tiffin
An acceleration of the lifting of public health measures was announced by the provincial government on March 9 prior to the HKPR briefing. Provincial mask mandates are scheduled to end on March 21, and COVID-19 safety plans for businesses and screening measures are coming to an end as well. By the end of April, the Reopening Ontario Act legislating mask mandates, capacity limits and proof of vaccinations will expire and no longer be in place.
Some of the requirements for isolation have been further loosened for individuals that are contacts of people with COVID-19.
Close contacts not living in the same house will not need to isolate but should self-monitor for symptoms. In the same household, those 18 and older who have received a booster dose or those under 18 with two doses of vaccine, won’t need to isolate alongside their household
member, the recommendation being to self-monitor for symptoms instead. Those unvaccinated would need to isolate for 10 days.
While PCR testing is still restricted, Bocking said the province has added more eligible groups including home and community care clients and some other specific settings.
“The majority of the population still will have to rely on rapid antigen testing if you’re looking for a diagnosis of COVID-19 beyond using symptoms as your guide,” Bocking said.
She said main messaging continues to ask that people to stay home if sick and assume that a positive rapid antigen test is a “true positive.”
Mask wearing still an option
Bocking said she would still encourage mask use in higher-risk settings for individuals with compromised immune systems or with vulnerable family members.
“There’s lots of different reasons why people will continue to wear a mask and the most important thing in relation to that is we continue to treat people with respect and understand there are lots of different reasons why people will continue to wear masks,” she said.
“We know that masks are an effective and easy way to slow transmission of COVID-19,” Bocking said. “What is changing is the provincial requirements around indoor masking. It doesn’t change the ability of businesses and employers to make decisions for work places that might be at higher risk for COVID-19 transmission to have in place policies that support masking, and it doesn’t change an individuals ability to wear masks and to be aware of COVID-19 transmission in community and to continue to help protect those people that are most vulnerable.”
Bocking said in the next couple of weeks the impact of loosening restrictions would be seen.
“Fingers crossed, COVID-19, Omicron will continue to diminish and we’ll reach a point in time where we don’t need masks further at all,” Bocking said.
When asked how vulnerable members of the community can respond, Bocking said those who know they’re at higher risk of becoming sick from COVID-19 will now be more aware that when they go to public places there is a greater possibility they will come into contact with somebody that unknowingly has the virus.
“It is tricky and it does place more of the onus on individuals to assess risk for themselves and risk or the impact on other people,” Bocking said. “I would continue to recommend that people that are at higher risk of developing more severe infections from COVID-19 to continue to wear masks, and to continue to be cautious in attending those settings where you might have very closely packed, dense social crowds with lots of individuals that are not masked. I don’t think it would be prudent at this time to start with those activities.”
Bocking said it’s important to be respectful of those wearing masks.
“When we see people that are wearing masks, we certainly can’t assume they have a medical condition that requires them to wear a mask. It could be somebody that has a family member that has a medical condition. It could be somebody that doesn’t have a medical condition, doesn’t have any family members but is really trying to be very aware and respectful and cognizant of not wanting to get anybody else sick and trying to prevent transmission.”
On masking at schools
Bocking said she didn’t foresee that there won’t be any masks at schools, with some teachers and students requiring one and some families electing to continue wearing one.
“Lifting of the legislative requirement for masking, we know that some people won’t wear masks and what that does, is it will increase the risk of transmission of COVID-19 and we just don’t know to what extent that is. I think the numbers are low enough right now that hopefully we won’t actually see a significant increase in COVID-19 transmission, and that’s certainly the hope. Right now time will tell and the key is to be aware and to understand that this very easy, effective tool, we can continue to bring it out and use it as needed.”
Children under five are still unvaccinated but Bocking said there are other layers of protection.
“In our region, close to 50 per cent of kids between five and 11 have been vaccinated or have at least received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine,” Bocking said. “We also know that a fairly large number likely have had Omicron, COVID-19, and will have some naturally acquired immunity through there. There is overall a certain level of immunity in the population. We know there’s other layered measures like ventilation, like handwashing and assuring that if you’re sick you’re staying home that will also remain in place.”
Last Wednesday the province also announced changes to how they’re reporting deaths related to COVID-19.
“They’ve gone back and are really looking to be very specific at including only those deaths where COVID-19 was the direct cause or a main contributing cause of death, and that might result in a change in numbers at a provincial level,” Bocking said. “Locally, we have always attempted to only report those deaths that are as a direct result of COVID-19, the main cause or main contributing cause of death.”
Bocking said sometimes those numbers will increase or decrease as more information comes in. All local cases are currently being reviewed to ensure they meet provincial criteria, but she does not anticipate a significant change.
“Often I’ve heard people say we should only be counting those deaths where COVID-19 was the exact cause of death, but we also know there are individuals that have other medical conditions that then contracted COVID-19 and became quite ill because of that, maybe largely because of their underlying condition, but really COVID-19 still contributed to any earlier death than might have otherwise been realized,” she said. “I wonder if we are still underreporting the impact of COVID-19 on some of those deaths.”
Bocking said the exercise in numbers was never perfect but they were hoping to communicate the “true burden” of what COVID-19 has been for communities.