New COVID-19 variants aren’t as severe as previous strains: physician

By James Matthews

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Local public health officials are preparing for another “atypical” respiratory season.

Dr. Natalie Bocking, the medical officer of health and the CEO at the Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit, said health professionals have been getting questions from the community about what to expect from respiratory ailments this time of the year.

Fall in general is an incredibly busy time for the health unit as is the same across many other sectors, she said.

“In general, we’re preparing folks for what’s considered to be another atypical respiratory season,” Bocking said. “Atypical is in comparison to pre-pandemic.”

Public health officials expect influenza season to begin early again and they expect to have some measure of COVID-19 infections.

“And we’re expecting other respiratory viruses to still be somewhat higher than what we saw pre-pandemic,” she said.

The components of readiness include surveillance and data collection, supports for infection prevention and control, public education, vaccination, testing, and treatment.

Last year’s flu season was intense, she said. It began earlier and peaked earlier than previous years, and that had a number of implications for Emergency Departments, hospitals, and long-term care homes.

In the southern hemisphere, which has traditionally indicated what can be expected from flu season in Canada and the U.S., children have been particularly affected.

Regarding the coronavirus, Bocking said there’s been a relatively long spell of few hospitalizations. When you think about the summer, there was little word about COVID-19.

However, data from wastewater surveillance across provinces has shown an increase and hospitalizations are beginning to rise.

“We’re not seeing a lot locally yet, but we are anticipating for that to increase,” she said.

She said the coronavirus continues to mutate and evolve and there now is a number of “recombinant variants.”

Recombinant means more than one variant have mutated together to form a whole new variant, Bocking said. Descendants of the XBB variant continue to dominate.

“The good news is we’ve not had a new variant that has set us back similar to what happened with omicron,” she said. “New variants, while they’re very, very contagious, they do not seem to be causing more severe illness than previous variants.”

Bocking said there’s a lot of work that goes into the beginning of a season in preparation for worst case scenarios.

“The vaccination landscape continues to get a little more complicated or nuanced,” she said and added that three main vaccinations should be considered this fall.

They’re the flu and COVID-19 vaccines, plus a new vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that’s “specifically for residents of long-term care homes that are older than 60 years of age.”

Ontario is the first jurisdiction in the world to roll out an RSV vaccine for at-risk seniors, she said.

The updated flu and COVID-19 vaccines are prioritized by segments of the population at higher risk. The high-risk campaign takes place throughout October before it opens for general population.

It continues to be recommended that vaccines be taken six months apart, she said.

“The shifting of the landscape for COVID-19 vaccines is that we’re really not referring to it as booster doses as much,” Bocking said. “It’s aligning more with the influenza vaccine.”

Annual flu shots aren’t called boosters, she said.

“COVID-19, the vaccine, might not ever quite be the same as influenza in terms of being able to match the strains exactly because it mutates so quickly,” she said. “But it’s moving closer in that direction and maybe someday we will reach that point.”