Approach new COVID-19 variant with vigilance and 'skepticism' until we learn more, Toronto doctor urges

·6 min read

An infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital is urging people to remain vigilant and skeptical until we learn more about the new COVID-19 variant — first identified in the United Kingdom — after Ontario health officials confirmed three cases of the strain over the weekend.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who is also a member of Ontario's COVID-19 vaccine task force, said as of right now, we know "surprisingly little" about the new variant.

"We know that it might be more contagious and, if so, it's not entirely clear to what extent," he told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Monday.

"I think it's fair to be careful, I think it's fair to take it seriously — I think it's also fair to approach it with some skepticism as well."

The first reported Canadian cases, identified in a couple in Durham Region, came as the province went into a lockdown on Saturday, and a third case was confirmed in Ottawa on Sunday.

Health officials in British Columbia also identified one person infected with the variant, bringing Canada's overall total to four.

The variant has now been detected in multiple countries beyond Britain, including Denmark, Belgium, Australia and the Netherlands.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, early data suggests the new variant may be more easily transmissible, but there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness or impacts the body's antibody response or vaccine effectiveness.

In the interim, Bogoch is urging people to continue following public health guidelines, adding that our daily lives "shouldn't change a bit."

This comes as Ontario confirmed 2,005 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, as well as 18 additional deaths.

The province will not release new COVID-19 data on Monday or on Jan. 1. The health ministry says two reports will be posted on the next days after those dates.

Several vaccination clinics paused over the holidays

Several doctors across the province took to Twitter over the weekend, criticizing the Ontario government for closing many vaccination clinics for several days over the holidays.

Ontario laboratories began administering the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to health-care workers earlier this month, and is poised to receive tens of thousands of doses of the newly approved Moderna shot by the end of the month.

As of 4 p.m. Monday, the province has administered 13,200 of the received 90,000 doses.

In response to the halting of vaccination clinics between Dec. 25 and Dec. 27, Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, who is leading Ontario's vaccination rollout, told CBC Toronto the reason for the brief pause was to give health-care workers a long-deserved break.

On Nov. 24, when Ontario was beginning to build its Vaccine Task Force, Hillier said he did not want the vaccines to sit on shelves when they arrive, but rather be quickly administered and in the arms of medical professionals and vulnerable patients.

But Hillier says there were prior talks about whether vaccines should continue to be administered through Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and in the end, came down to a decision that health-care workers and essential workers have been working under "terrible conditions" and long hours for far too long now, he said.

"We felt in the slightly longer term, it was better to take a little pause and then to be ready to ramp up again today as we have already done that," Hillier said on Monday.

In a statement issued Monday, Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca called out Premier Doug Ford's government, saying "COVID-19 isn't taking a break, neither can our vaccination efforts."

"Even as more than 2,000 people are infected daily, Doug Ford has paused vaccinations for the holidays with fewer than 12,000 of Ontario's 90,000 doses administered to date," the statement reads.

"With so many doses on hand and so few administered, there's no excuse for the delay."

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath agrees.

"It's disheartening and frustrating to know that tens of thousands of life-saving vaccine doses have been sitting in freezers," Horwath said in a statement.

"Vaccine supplies have been available in Ontario for more than two weeks, yet instead of an urgent mobilization to get the vaccine into the arms of people who need it most, we're seeing the government struggle to figure out how to move this life-saving vaccine out."

'We are vaccinating as many people as possible': MOH

Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for the Minister of Health, said Ontario's vaccine rollout is "well underway" and they anticipate getting through the 90,000 doses at all 19 active hospital sites in the next several days.

"For our pilot project in Toronto and Ottawa in which the province only received a very small amount of doses, clinical guidance recommended using half the available vaccine supplies while reserving a second dose in the event of supply chain disruptions," Hilkene said in a statement to CBC News.

She said the province is not holding back on doses in the meanwhile.

"We are not holding or reserving doses, and are vaccinating as many people as possible, counting on confirmed shipments of the vaccine that will arrive over the coming weeks for second doses," Hilkene said.

EVAN MITSUI
EVAN MITSUI

Meanwhile, health officials say the new strain further reinforces a need for enhanced restriction and a provincewide shutdown, which took effect on Boxing Day.

Dr. Charles Gardner, the medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, said his area is "challenged" due to COVID-19, caused in part by Greater Toronto Area (GTA) residents going up north to visit their cottages.

"We see spread that is related to movement of the population," he said on Monday.

"Part of that spread, in my mind, is because of differences in the degree of restrictions in different areas."

In the past week, the region has reported 356 new COVID-19 cases, for a seven-day average of nearly 51.

Stay within your region, medical officer of health urges

It's because of the interprovincial travel that Gardner said he's worried about a post-holiday spike in confirmed cases, but hopeful the blanket shutdown will help keep people at home.

"The pattern is reflective of transmission, with people moving across the border and then with social gatherings and work environments," he said.

The current lockdown will remain in place for southern Ontario until Jan. 23, but is scheduled to lift for northern Ontario on Jan. 9.

The restrictions include limiting travel outside your home to essential services.

For the five regions already in lockdown — Toronto, Peel Region, York Region, Windsor-Essex and Hamilton — the new measures don't look much different than what is currently in place, though there are a few differences.

But for other regions, much tighter restrictions are now in place. For more information on what's allowed and what isn't under the new rules, click here.