By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
HALDIMAND—The Omicron variant, known to be far more contagious than previous strains of COVID-19, has arrived in Haldimand and Norfolk counties, with the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit (HNHU) reporting that there were 16 suspected cases of the variant as of Monday, December 19, 2021.
“Given the extraordinary number of suspected Omicron cases throughout the province, we are almost safe to call the suspected Omicron cases presumed Omicron cases at this point,” said Acting Medical Officer of Health (MOH) Dr. Matt Strauss in a meeting on December 19. “With the rate that Omicron is likely to spread, many folks who are eligible for boosting at this time are unlikely to get boosted by the time the Omicron wave goes through.”
As of press time on December 20, there were a total of 200 active cases in the community, with two people hospitalized and one in the ICU. The seven-day rolling average for new cases was up from nine per day two weeks ago to 16 a day.
“We’re anticipating it will continue to go up,” said Strauss, adding that over the three-day weekend, 60 new cases were reported. He offered some preliminary thoughts on the virulent new strain based on data that is currently available.
“Where a person with Delta might give their Delta to one or two other people, internationally, numbers around four are being reported for Omicron,” said Strauss. “Public Health Ontario has released some data specific to Ontario showing that number as closer to six or seven. Omicron spreads much more readily than any other variant we’ve seen before.”
He added, “Given that there are 16 suspect cases of Omicron, and how quick it spreads, I suspect there are many, many more yet to be diagnosed in our community. I suspect on this basis that we will see a steep increase in local cases consistent with what the rest of the province has seen.”
Despite the grim prediction, Strauss offered some levity as well.“Kingston, and Queens University more specifically, is just about ground zero for Omicron in Canada right now. Last week, Kingston Public Health shared a report on their early experience… Of 450 suspect Omicron cases in their community, 450 of them were mild. Importantly, many of those were healthy, young, double-vaccinated Queens students.” Strauss said that newly received data from Public Health Ontario shows that of all confirmed Omicron cases in Ontario, only 0.5% spent any time in the hospital.
“I cannot confirm at this time that Omicron is milder than previous variants. I can say that there are several leading indicators to suggest that is true. We have monitored the South African situation very closely. It does seem to have caused milder disease there, but there are many important respects in which Canada is not like South Africa.
Strauss listed the proportion of the population likely to have natural immunity from previous infection at this point and the age structure of the population as some key differences that could impact the severity of those who are infected by Omicron.
Booster shot rollout underway locally
Those hoping to get a third-dose booster shot quickly due to expanded eligibility will need to temper their expectations.
“We’re asking for patience from our community,” said Sarah Page, who oversaw the original vaccine rollout in Haldimand-Norfolk and is back to lend a hand with the booster shot rollout.
“The amount of time it took us to reach 75,000 the first time around was three to four months… We will be doing a more longer, drawn out third-dose process than most people will expect or desire.”
Page said that the vaccine team is doing everything they can to ramp back up to full-speed after a couple months of relative calm on the vaccine front: “It is all hands on deck… We are doing everything we can to respond to the quick eligibility changes. We know there are a lot of people experiencing some panic, and some insistence on having a booster before Christmas or before the end of the year… understand the vaccine system in total is overloaded across the province right now.”
Currently, there are no walk-in appointments available at any local vaccine clinic or pharmacy. Page directed residents to keep checking the HNHU online booking tool or visiting local pharmacy websites to secure an appointment.
Strauss reiterated that although things don’t look great, for those who have already received two doses there is no need to panic currently.
“I want everyone to know that two doses is still very good,” said Strauss. “Although vaccine effectiveness with respect to infection and transmission decreases over time, in Ontario as low as 60%, it still prevents hospitalization and death at around 95% effectiveness.”
He said a 30-something might have a 1 in 5,000 chance of dying of COVID if they are unvaccinated, but with an effectiveness rate of 95% that rate drops to 1 in 100,000: “We do need to separate our thinking on the effectiveness of preventing transmission from the effectiveness of preventing hospitalization and death.”
“I would ask folks who are younger and healthier to consider whether elder or more vulnerable members of the population should have their dose first,” added Strauss. “I think the community needs to understand that 75,000 were just made eligible for booster shots… we’re not going to be hitting 75,000 doses for a while.”
Vaccine site over-crowding
A planned Go-Vaxx bus clinic at the Canboro Community Centre in Dunnville last weekend became a chaotic scene as nearly 1,000 people showed up before the clinic had started, with only 300 doses total available for distribution.
“We definitely had to do some crowd-control, some moving around. They made a ticket system and gave out tickets that would be eligible for the doses available and then unfortunately had to turn people away,” said Page of the clinic.
Videos and photos on social media showed a large line of largely elderly residents standing in line. Learning from that experience, the vaccine team implemented several changes to a Cortland-based Go-Vaxx clinic on Monday.
“Fire, EMS, and police were on scene. There were more traffic barriers and safer access,” said Page, noting that around 400 people showed up to the clinic, with the 300 who would receive a dose being given a ticket and a timeframe to return for their shot. “We are learning our lessons as we go along and that’s the main reason we’re expanding into indoor clinics and more similar options to address the upcoming cold weather.”
Page also said that in addition to increased clinics being planned at existing sites in both counties, plans are developing to open mass vaccine sites in January like the previous ones in Delhi and Cayuga.
Editor’s note: Information provided is accurate as of Tuesday, December 20.