By Sue Tiffin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The following are brief reports from a Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit press conference held virtually Feb. 17.
The health unit marked a milestone over this past weekend, reporting the 1,000th confirmed case of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in the HKPR district.
Dr. Ian Gemmill, HKPRDHU acting medical officer of health, said that at this point, the cases are mostly being linked to household contacts, close contacts, and some inadvertent exposures. In the last two weeks, most cases were being reported in the 30 to 39-year-old age group, and then in the 20 to 29-year-old age group.
“I can’t draw any firm conclusions from this, except to say that it’s a phenomenon that we’ve seen in other places and it tends to happen when people are not paying attention to the gathering recommendations,” he said. “And so I’m inferring from this – although I can’t say for sure – I’m inferring from this that perhaps some of the gatherings we’re trying to discourage, perhaps are still happening.”
He reiterated that despite the provincial lockdown largely being lifted, gatherings and travelling should be avoided, and distancing and mask-wearing should continue.
About a third of the cases were outbreak related, Gemmill said.
Wearing mask properly can help reduce risk of spread
When asked about updated guidance on mask wearing, which mask to use, and whether or not double masking is recommended given the spread of highly transmissible COVID-19 variants, Gemmill said: “My best advice is, stay home.”
“We want the best possible mask for the people who are looking after patients with coronavirus, because that’s where the real risk is,” said Gemmill. “If you’re going to get your hair cut, or going to another service … I think the important thing … is to have a face covering of some kind, and to make sure it fits and that it’s comfortable so you’re not always [using your hands to adjust] it, and getting whatever’s on your mask all over your hands.”
Gemmill said he has observed that happening when he sees people wearing masks on TV, the mask being worn under the nose or being adjusted repeatedly by the wearer.
He said masks that are reusable should be washed frequently, and disposable masks should not be reused – using a disposable mask for an hour or two prior to replacing it would be prudent.
“I think like everything else that’s going on with this virus, it’s hugely confusing,” he said.
Gemmill said people should ensure their face is covered with at least one layer, and that he would not fault anyone who was most comfortable wearing a mask from the pharmacy with a cloth mask over it.
A mask reduces the risk of acquiring the virus, but does not eliminate it, he said.
Vaccine shipment expected this week
The 1,700 residents in long-term care homes throughout the HKPR district have now been immunized with their first vaccine, Gemmill said, a process which took two weeks. The health unit is in line to receive the second dose for those residents.
This week, more than 4,500 Pfizer vaccines are scheduled to be delivered to the health unit, though Gemmill said that depends on how many vaccines can be used from each vial – potentially as many as six.
“Forty-five hundred doses will allow us to begin immunization of those staff at long-term care homes, the high-priority healthcare workers,” said Gemmill. “The floodgates haven’t opened, but the supply is improving.”
For those waiting in line behind the highest risk of the population, Gemmill said, it’s going to be a while yet, but it won’t be long.
“I’m certainly hopeful we’ll be able to get everyone done by the end of the summer, as has been promised by [the government],” he said.
The vaccine will be stored at both Ross Memorial Hospital and Northumberland Hills hospitals, which have the freezer capability to store the vials, which must be kept at a certain temperature. Gemmill said a freezer might come to Haliburton, as well.
“The ministry had a little foul-up, I think they’re just trying to get stuff out the door, so Ross ended up with two freezers, and I don’t think they need both of them so we’re trying to get this spread out geographically as much as we can,” he said at a board of health meeting last week. “That’s not happening yet, but we’re working on it.”
The health unit has announced that there is not currently a waiting list for the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the region, and have asked that you do not call your health care provider or the health unit looking to be added to a list. More information about vaccinating the general public will be widely distributed when sufficient vaccine supply is available. An online and phone appointment system for residents across the province to make reservations for the vaccine is being developed by the province but is not available yet, Gemmill said.
Two additional cases test positive for variant
Two additional cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed to test positive as variants of concern, however, the cases are household contacts of the Port Hope case that had on Feb. 9 become the region’s first identified case of variant. The household cases had been in quarantine together and it was expected that the additional two cases would also test positive for the variant. It is not yet known by the health unit which variant was identified.
“This is a controlled situation,” said Gemmill. “Since they’ve all been quarantined, I’m not worried particularly about these cases.”
Across Ontario, Gemmill said, the proportion of positive cases that are constituted by the variants of concern are rising, and that 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 it spreads, 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 from 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.”
Avoid gathering, travelling, upsurge of cases
The press conference marked the first since the provincial reopening and relaxation of the stay-at-home order, which Gemmill has stressed does not mean that the pandemic has resolved, and that an upsurge of cases is likely if public health measures are not followed. Over the past two weeks, since the reopening was announced by the province, Gemmill has said that he is “pleading” with the public to avoid non-essential activity until more of the population is vaccinated to avoid losing the advantage gained by the lockdown.
“The only thing worse than being in lockdown is being in and out, and in and out of lockdown,” he said.
For more information, visit http://www.hkpr.on.ca.