With health experts predicting a third wave of COVID-19 is inevitable — some saying it is already here — and as the provincial booking system for vaccinations is open and Niagara clinics are set to open, Dr. Mustafa Hirji is suggesting we act like we’re in a lockdown.
The number of variant cases is increasing rapidly, and there is little time “to turn this trajectory around,” said Niagara’s acting medical officer of health.
“I really do think we all need to continue to have the mindset that we had back a year ago when we had the first lockdown,” when we were all motivated to stay home and flatten the curve, he said. That’s the best way to control COVID cases without again closing down businesses, and might only be necessary for a couple more months, he added.
The concern across Ontario is the impact of rising variant cases on the hospital system. An increased need for hospital beds and reduced capacity in intensive care units would be cause of a third wave and force the province into a third lockdown.
At his weekly Monday press briefing, Hirji said there have been 118 variant cases in Niagara, nearly 40 per cent of the region’s 265 active COVID cases, a sharp increase from March 1, when he reported 17 cases of variants.
He said the provincial vaccination portal, which opened Monday morning to those in the 80-plus age, was working successfully. At least it hadn’t crashed, as some municipal booking systems had, although residents were reporting long waits online and on the phone, and there were news reports of glitches that were quickly fixed.
Those born in 1941 or earlier can register either online at Ontario.ca/bookvaccine, or by phone at 1-888-999-6488.
Residents of Ontario may register for any clinic in Niagara, Hirji said, or across the province, as long as they fall into the correct age group and have a health card.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero said she took her mother to the Seymour Hanna vaccination clinic last week, after being offered an appointment by her doctor, and discovered it was like “old home week.” She had to wait outside in her car, and saw several other residents from Niagara-on-the-Lake as they were leaving after being vaccinated.
Dave Hunter, his wife Dena Broeders and their neighbour Joan Wilkes, 94, were all at the clinic thanks to Dr. Karen Berti, who had called to say she could get them a spot.
Hunter said he isn’t overly concerned about COVID, but his wife was “extremely happy” to have the opportunity to be vaccinated.
“This was a real weight off her shoulders,” he said.
Their bubble has been small, but this may allow them to safely, when permitted, travel to see their grandson’s new home in Barrie, which they are anxious to do.
They were given an appointment for a second dose in three weeks’ time, he said.
He wasn’t sure why they were offered a vaccination at the Niagara Health clinic at this time, but were happy to take it, and found it to be very organized, and overall “a pleasant experience.”
Public health clinics across Niagara begin Thursday, with 11 vaccination sites across the region. Hirji explained that the larger urban areas have several consecutive days of clinics, which are more efficient than moving around, while those in smaller municipalities may have one or two.
Niagara-on-the-Lake has clinics at the community centre March 31, April 1 and April 9. The schedule in each municipality was based on the size of the population to be vaccinated, and the space available, he said.
As more staff becomes trained, more clinics could be scheduled, he added.
Although he didn’t have a date to release, he said as more vaccine becomes available, pharmacies and primary health care clinics will also be able to offer vaccinations.
Hirji explained that by numbers, Niagara is doing well in its vaccination program, which was late getting off the ground compared to other health units in Ontario, due to a lack of vaccine.
There are about 28,000 people in Niagara aged 80 and over, 20,000 of those not in long-term care, one of the largest per capita senior populations in the province. More than half, about 15,000, have already received their vaccination or are booked for one, Hirji said.
“We’re making great progress. We’re a third of the way already done” as far as people either vaccinated or waiting for an appointment that had been made by noon Monday.