While the number of daily COVID cases continues to decline, Niagara and across the province, Niagara’s acting chief medical officer of health is worried the variant from India is on the rise in the region.
At a virtual press conference Monday, Dr. Mustafa Hirji explained the province screens to identify variants of concern, but has no test for the Indian variant. He is concerned some of the new daily cases may be that variant, with their number being underestimated.
“I think we are a little blind to what is happening, because we can’t screen for it,” said Hirji.
The B1617 variant spreads more quickly than others, and causes more serious illness, he added.
Also worrisome is that studies are showing the B1617 variant is more resistant to at least the first dose of two of the vaccines used in Canada, the AstraZeneca and the Pfizer, he said, making getting the second dose as quickly as possible even more important.
In the province and in Niagara, new COVID cases are trending downward, as are hospitalizations, he said. Admissions to intensive care units are not falling as quickly, but they are decreasing.
His fear is that while the provincial reopening schedule may seem safe based on that good news, lifting the lockdown might be premature.
“We need to be very focused on being sure we are prepared for that, before we see a repeat of the third wave with variants taking over.”
Instead he suggests waiting to see what happens with this variant before lifting the stay-at-home order and progressing through the reopening steps that are to follow.
That would also allow time for public health to get back on track with its contact tracing, which it has been unable to keep up with the daily numbers of new cases.
Hirji used the U.K. as an example of what could happen in Ontario. It lifted what appeared to be a successful lockdown when cases decreased to a level that looked safe for reopening, only to see cases rise again from the B1617 variant, due to its contact with India.
“Often what occurs in the U.K. comes to Ontario a month later,” he said.
“This is a warning cloud on the horizon for us.”
Hirji said the percentage of test positivity is coming down in Niagara, which should be good news, but he is concerned it means that people with mild symptoms are not getting tested.
He urges anyone with even mild symptoms to be tested to help with contact tracing and reduce any further spread of infection.
His other key message is the importance of a second vaccination dose, so that everybody is protected against B1617, thus preventing another wave as a result of the variant.
On Monday he said there were still “a few thousand” appointments available for second doses in Niagara, but he expected they would fill up quickly.
“The second dose is going to be critical.”
The region has the capacity to vaccinate up to 10,000 doses a day, but is only receiving enough vaccine to do about 5,500 to 6,000 day.
Pharmacies and primary care physicians are receiving some vaccine, but not enough to do as many vaccinations as they could, he said.