By Sue Tiffin
The following are brief reports from a Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit press conference held virtually Jan. 27.
Dr. Ian Gemmill, acting medical officer of health, noted that Haliburton County is not unaffected by COVID-19 – at the time of the press conference, there were five current cases of COVID-19 in Haliburton County being confirmed by the health unit, more than a dozen high-risk contacts, and the first hospitalization since one reported last April.
“So the numbers are small but I think the issue I’m trying to get across is that coronavirus is everywhere,” he told media. “There’s no part of our area that is unaffected, and there’s no part of our area in which you can throw precautions to the wind. It’s basically a fact of life, it’s something we’re living with now. If someone is saying there’s no coronavirus in Haliburton, it’s not accurate.”
Gemmill said the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit, which covers the regions of Haliburton County, Northumberland County and City of Kawartha Lakes, has been fortunate to see fewer numbers than hotspots in the province. At press time, the region had seen a total of 872 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus since the pandemic was declared last March.
“Luckily, with a smaller population and a less densely concentrated population, that’s an advantage, because those things I just mentioned are what can cause the amplification, the high intensity of people with other people, facilitates the spread of the virus,” said Gemmill. “Being more of a rural area, all through HKPR, that actually helps – that’s why we’re not in the same situation as the GTA, Windsor, Ottawa, and so on. My point is, the virus is still present everywhere and it can have significant complications like hospitalizations.”
Stay-at-home order in place at secondary residences, too
As was mentioned in the previous week’s board of health meeting, Gemmill reiterated his ask of people spending time at secondary residences in Haliburton County, and elsewhere in the HKPR region, to follow the stay-at-home orders in place.
“One of the things I want to say about Haliburton, a number of people have mentioned this to me so I thought it was important to mention it to you as well, we know that a lot of people in other areas are going to their recreational properties in the county, and there’s actually nothing in place to stop people from doing so, but I just want to take this opportunity to say, if people are doing this – we’re talking about people whose recreational or secondary residence is in HKPR, generally, or maybe in Haliburton specifically – please if you’re going to do this, do it the right way,” said Gemmill. “And that means, getting your supplies before you go, driving in your car, stay in your car, go straight to your property, and then when you get there, remember there is a stay-at-home order there. It applies just as much at a recreational property in HKPR as it does to a residence in Toronto or another part of the GTA. It’s just as if you were home. And so if you are staying at a secondary property that you own, the stay-at-home order is still in effect. Please do not put other people at risk when you travel, and when you travel home, do the same thing – straight home, please.”
Vaccinations underway, beginning in area long-term care homes
Last week, the health unit received the first 700 doses of the vaccine and began administering them to residents at long-term care homes including Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, which was the site of an outbreak last spring that resulted in 29 deaths due to COVID-19.
“First of all it’s the right thing to do, because these are the most vulnerable people, as I mentioned last week, up to 40 per cent I think of long-term care homes were in outbreak, we’ve got to stop these outbreaks to keep these elderly people, vulnerable people protected,” said Gemmill. “That’s where we’ve started and that’s also what the province of Ontario has directed us to do.”
Gemmill noted he had heard a federal minister say that morning that by the end of September, everyone who wants a vaccine will have had it, and Gemmill said he hopes everyone can be vaccinated even sooner than that. He said the local health unit had submitted their plan to the Ministry of Health, and was making mass immunization a priority to ensure everyone who wants a vaccine can get it in the safest and most fair way possible, with long-term care residents and healthcare workers receiving the vaccination first.
“This vaccine is safe, the vaccine is effective, the clinical trials have been conducted on tens of thousands of people, millions since licensing have already received it, we’re not hearing that there are safety problems with this vaccine, that are generalized,” he said. “I really want to assure people, if that’s your worry, you needn’t worry. It was fast, it was remarkably fast, it was blisteringly fast to get a vaccine developed. but they were able to piggyback it on a technology that had been developed for other purposes, and it just worked.”
The vaccine is not yet licensed for children or adolescents under the age of 18, but Gemmill said vaccine manufacturers have begun trials for children.
“Clearly as parents we care about our children more than we care about ourselves,” he said. “I think people are going to be very very happy to have a vaccine for children when it’s licensed. For sure by this time next year. That will give parents as well a lot less worry about sending their kids to school – the risk [of kids at school] is not high as I mentioned last week, you’re not seeing outbreaks or serious situations coming in to schools – but parents will just feel better. And the other thing is, I can’t wait to immunize the teachers as well, because they’re going in to situations as well with lots and lots of young people, they are accepting exposure, and we need to look after them as well.”
Provincial numbers have decreased during lock-down
Last week, 21,478 COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Ontario, down from a Jan. 11 peak of 30,632, two weeks into the province’s lock-down.
“When winter comes, this virus becomes more prevalent because it likes the wintertime and it spreads more easily, so it’s like somebody turned on the virus hose,” said Gemmill. “We’ve got our thumb over the end and we’re trying to keep that in and I think those restrictions, which is our thumb on the end of the hose, is doing something … But I certainly don’t want to live like this for the next five years. I can’t wait until we can get back to normal. So the purpose of these restrictions, keeping our thumb on the hose is to keep the numbers down, which … it’s working and doing … keeping people unaffected and get the vaccine into them before they have an exposure.”
Gemmill said it is essential to keep numbers down to protect the most number of people possible.
“It demonstrates the restrictions work, but the restrictions, they’ll only work as long as our thumb is on that hose, once you release it, we could be in big trouble again, so the more definitive intervention to protect everybody with this one is a safe and effective vaccine.”
Anti-lockdown protests ‘short-sighted’
When Gemmill was asked to comment on anti-lockdown protests occurring in front of Victoria Hall in Cobourg, he said that while he understood lockdowns are frustrating, he said what the protestors, many of them unmasked, were doing was “short-sighted,” and said “I just don’t think people are thinking this through.” He noted again his parents’ experience of living through the Second World War, and said that in critical times it was essential to pull together rather than apart.
“It’s all about keeping that thumb on the hose so we don’t have more outbreaks in long-term care, we don’t have more hospitalizations,” he said. “I’m really, I’m begging people who are really questioning the value of these measures, they’re not there to be mean and they’re not there to be ridiculous, they’re there for a very good purpose. And I would be the first one to say I can’t wait until we can lift them. It’s not going to be right away either, but I can’t wait until we can lift these restrictions so we can all get back to normal. I would really like everyone to do their part so we can keep this under control. now that we’ve got this vaccine, we’ve started already, it’s not going to be long. It’s going to be weeks, but it’s not going to be five years like it was with the pandemic of 1918, where people were still being exposed and dying from the Spanish flu.”