Vaccines are coming to Niagara, but will their arrival be in time to prevent a third wave?
Dr. Mustafa Hirji, the region’s acting chief medical officer of health, says Niagara is in a race to get vaccine into arms before the spread of variant cases leads to another lockdown.
And again on Monday he warned the only way to control the spread, is “to push the increase as far out as possible” while we wait for vaccinations, by being cautious, “staying home, and venturing out only for essential purposes.”
The rate of infection could be much worse if everybody doesn’t do their part, he added.
Moving to the red zone and the reopening that accompanied it encourages people to go out shopping or for recreation, Hirji said, but he doesn’t think the province is likely to move Niagara back to grey-lockdown, although that could change.
By mid-March, variants, which spread quicker than the original virus, could make up 40 per cent of all cases across Ontario.
We have “a few more months” to stave off the increase of cases until more people are vaccinated, avoiding another lockdown, he said.
By Monday, Niagara had gone from six suspected cases of variant cases to 60 in two weeks, four of them confirmed as B.1.1.7, the U.K. variant.
The good news is there are now four approved vaccines on their way, also seemingly effective against variants, and a second dose can be administered four months after the first, rather than the previous target of three to four weeks. That will allow more people to be vaccinated sooner, said Hirji, and still offer good protection against infection.
The change in the schedule for second doses follows the provincial decision, based on the recommendation from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, due to limited COVID-19 vaccine supply, and increasing research that the first dose of both Pfizer and Moderna has high effectiveness against symptomatic disease and hospitalization several weeks after the first dose, said an announcement Tuesday from Niagara Health.
“Niagara Health will continue to advocate for the time between doses to be reduced should supply of vaccine increase in the future,” the announcement said. Anyone who is awaiting their second dose from Niagara Health will receive a revised notification about their new appointment.
Despite the good news on the vaccination front, Hirji remains concerned about the “pretty high” number of people battling the coronavirus in intensive care units and hospital beds in Niagara, and said it’s important to get that number down in advance of a potential spike in variant cases.
While staff levels will be “stressed” once health care workers move to vaccination clinics, he said, there are sufficient numbers to get the job done, but that’s another reason to control the spread and not further stretch hospital resources.
Niagara is using the provincial portal for vaccination registration, expected to open March 15 for people 80 and older. At that time, appointments can be made by phone as well, Hirji said. Vaccinations are expected to begin in community clinics about a week later.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, the clinics are expected to be held one day a week in the community centre, although the day has not been announced.
Although other areas of Ontario appear to have progressed faster in their vaccinations, having now moved on to the 80-plus population, Hirji disputes the notion that Niagara is lagging behind.
The region has a higher number of long-term care homes in Niagara, and seniors living in congregate settings who have already been vaccinated, along with the health care workers in those homes.
Niagara, he said, “is actually keeping pace in terms of vaccinations” with other areas in Ontario.
“Niagara is actually a little above the provincial average for vaccinations. Niagara’s done pretty well,” he said, despite getting a late start, being behind in receiving vaccine, and working with a larger senior population in a greater number of long-term care homes.
Niagara Health is now vaccinating some of those in the 80 years old and up category, but has approached that rollout a little differently than other areas, by first targeting those currently in the hospital and reaching out by phone to those at home who have recently had hospital stays.
Niagara Health is also continuing to vaccinate healthcare workers at the Seymour Hannah clinic in St. Catharines, prioritizing long-term care and retirement home workers, hospital staff and physicians, primary care providers, dentists and other specialists, as well as medical first responders (including paramedics, police and firefighters).
While vaccinations in long-term care and at-risk retirement homes, and other congregate living settings for seniors, have reduced the number of deaths in Niagara, Hirji said, the majority of people in the hospital or intensive care units are in the 60 to 79 age group, and some are younger than that. That’s a concern, because their vaccinations are a ways off, and won’t be in time to avoid the third wave, he said.