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. 2.
When asked for her thoughts on the current protests in Ottawa and throughout the province regarding vaccines, vaccine mandates and public health restrictions, Bocking said:
“I think it’s fair to be frustrated. I think the pandemic overall has caused lots of frustration with many individuals and impacted people in lots of different ways and so there are many people whose livelihoods have been impacted in ways that will take a long time to overcome,” she said. “I respect the right of people to protest and share their opinion.”
She said she does not believe that the “really disappointing kind of behaviours that have been reported from some protestors in Ottawa,” reflects all protestors. “ … [But] it is really concerning to see some of the rhetoric and some of the slogans that protestors are sharing, which are completely misinformation, harmful. It is never OK to compare a vaccine mandate to genocide. I think some of those messages are really problematic. I know they’re not reflective of everybody, but I think sometimes, as I’ve been reminded by other folks … your impact is sometimes different from what your intent is. I’m hopeful there’s a resolution soon especially for those folks living in Ottawa.”
Bocking was also asked if the protestors’ sentiments were frustrating for her.
“I think it will always be there. I think we’ve learned with previous vaccine-preventable diseases that there will always be individuals that don’t support the science or that have alternative understanding,” she said. “I think we can always expect that there are people that oppose any sort of restrictions in the name of public health. I think the COVID pandemic has stressed all of us, but without public health restrictions, without vaccines, I can’t imagine what the impact would have been on communities, so I really want to thank and emphasize all of the good work that has happened and all of those community members that have supported restrictions, supported vaccination because by far that’s the majority of our community. This is a small proportion of people, very small relative to our overall population that are expressing their frustration right now.”
A peak and a plateau
Bocking noted the provincial messaging that the Omicron wave, or number of infections, seems to have peaked and could potentially be on the decline, and said the HKPRD region tends to be a week behind the provincial average.
“I think that it’s quite likely that we will have peaked this week or this past week,” she said.
She also said it was important to remember that while the peak might have occurred, a plateau was also occurring. Lab-reported infections that had been reported to the health unit – those results only from people working or living in high-risk settings who are able to access PCR tests – have decreased from 100 to around 40 or 50 each day. The test positivity rate had stagnated, she said, staying at about 12 per cent over the past three weeks, and outbreaks have declined, with 15 in progress at the time of the briefing – 10 in long-term care facilities and five in other congregate settings.
Booster recommended for protective benefit
“Despite the fact that our case numbers might be coming down a bit or plateauing, as you’ve likely heard from provincial media reports, we should expect to see ongoing hospital admissions and ICU admissions associated with COVID-19 for another couple of weeks,” Bocking said.
At the time of the briefing there were 19 individuals admitted to hospital and six in the ICU. Since Jan. 1 there have been 50 hospital admissions, 13 ICU admissions and 14 deaths across the region.
Among hospital admissions, Bocking said the majority are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, with 56 per cent of those hospitalized having had no vaccinations, and 61 per cent admitted to ICU having not received vaccinations.
“There continues to be very good emerging data from not just Ontario numbers but also jurisdictions in the United States, the United Kingdom, that demonstrates the added protective benefit of a booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine,” Bocking said. “That continues to play a key role in helping to blunt the impact of Omicron variant on our healthcare system.”
Bocking said the health unit is still hearing a number of questions from community members about why the total number of people vaccinated or unvaccinated seems to be the same among people admitted to hospitals, and directed the public to a video created by the Eastern Ontario health unit that speaks to rates of risk as opposed to absolute numbers and “why we really can’t talk about absolute numbers of vaccinated/unvaccinated because that doesn’t tell us really the true story among individuals admitted to hospital. What we really need to be talking about is the rate of infection, or the risk of infection, among people that are either not vaccinated or those that have received two dose or a booster dose.”
Bocking said the risk factors previously identified in earlier waves of the pandemic that put somebody at higher risk for a severe outcome from infection remain the same: older age, obesity, medical conditions such as diabetes, chronic lung disease and other heart conditions.
Vaccination by the numbers
As of Jan. 31, 83 per cent of the population across the region that is 70 or older has received their booster dose. Of those aged 50 and older, 70.3 per cent have received their booster dose, and of those 18 and older, 57.5 per cent have received their booster dose.
Bocking said she’s hearing from some people a question of why someone should get the booster shot if those that are vaccinated are still becoming infected, and a comment of “we all should just get [the virus] so we don’t need the vaccine.”
“In response to that, increase your protection significantly against severe illness associated with COVID-19, and every time we prevent someone from developing a severe infection from COVID-19 and needing to be admitted to the hospital, we are helping to alleviate the pressure on our hospital to ensure that other ongoing healthcare needs are being met,” she said.
She said that those who are looking for a booster dose after being infected with COVID-19 should wait until they are out of isolation and no longer having symptoms to do so.
Vaccine clinics beginning at schools
Vaccine clinics are being offered at schools where there is enough interest for those looking for an accessible, convenient space to have their children vaccinated, but Bocking reiterated that the health unit is not vaccinating any child that has not been given parental permission. As of Jan. 31, 46.9 per cent of children in the area had received their first dose of vaccine.
Bocking said there are two things to consider in terms of the importance of vaccinating children, one being the benefit for the child.
“We know that the risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 is less for children, it’s a lower risk,” she said. “We know that risk is not zero. There have been children admitted to hospital, admitted to ICUs, and a very very small number of deaths …There is benefit for that individual child in receiving that vaccine.”
The other is the community-level benefit.
“In helping to protect individuals that are vulnerable and aren’t getting the full benefit of vaccines because of age or other medical conditions, the vaccines just aren’t as protective for those individuals,” she said. “We know that, the same as adults, children can get COVID-19 infection, they can pass it on, at a community-level. The more people vaccinated the less transmission we do have, and then we’ll start to see overall less virus. I think they also play a key role in helping overall our community be well and prevent COVID-19 transmission.”