GREY-BRUCE – Dr. Ian Arra, medical officer of health (MOH), told members of the board of health at the Dec. 17 meeting there has been a change in trends over the previous 10 days.
At the time of the meeting, the Omicron variant had not been identified in Grey-Bruce, although it has since been confirmed. Arra said that in general, the increased numbers reflect the transmissibility of the variants.
Although Omicron has only now been confirmed, Arra said public health wasn’t taking any chances, and had started “treating every case with enhanced measures” as if it were present a week previously.
He discussed the chain of contact involving schools and sports. In one case public health decided to test an entire school and held assessment clinics at the health unit headquarters for three straight days, resulting in 32 positive cases.
“This allowed us to map out where the transmission was occurring,” he said. And where it was not. It was not happening in the classroom.
There was a connection with organized sports – face-to-face contact in basketball, and social contacts among teammates, for example, at tournaments. There was no evidence transmission was happening on the ice with hockey.
Arra cautioned against making too much of statements about the severity of the Omicron variant. He said that while early evidence indicates Omicron is not as severe as other variants, the information comes from South Africa.
“It involves a younger population that may have had previous exposure,” he said.
Although possibly less severe, evidence indicates transmissibility of Omicron may be higher than with the Delta variant.
“A booster is recommended,” he said, describing it as a “solid, practical next step.”
He noted that public health is working with the COVID-19 task force and Bruce Power on a vaccination plan. It takes time to ramp up a hockey hub style mass immunization clinic, and there are plans to open three in January. Arra expressed “a high level of confidence” that the same kind of clinics that vaccinated 50 per cent of the local population in July can repeat that accomplishment in three or four weeks.
Arra told the board that anxiety is being generated. There are “people who want more measures immediately, and people who are fatigued and might not comply” with measures.
“In general, Grey-Bruce has witnessed optimal compliance,” the MOH said. “If we put out an order to people who are already compliant, or are compliant to the best of their ability, it might backfire,” he cautioned.
He said his preference would be to take the least intrusive measures that are effective, noting the surge in cases that made Grey-Bruce a hot spot for a brief time in the summer. Despite warnings of frightening scenarios, “we decided to go with compliance and contact tracing, and ended the hot spot.”
Arra said he was “cautiously optimistic” the same thing would give the people of Grey-Bruce a safe holiday, and a safe time after the holiday.
He asked people to be vigilant, and take the example of the minor sports groups who decided to curtail socializing before and after games. The situation will continue to be evaluated. “We will always follow the science,” said Arra.
New board member Luke Charbonneau, mayor of Saugeen Shores, said he’d heard people in his community talking about “stepping back,” and added, “I hope you’re right (about numbers leveling out).”
There was discussion about testing, and how some people are having difficulty accessing tests.
Arra noted assessment centres are not run by public health but hospitals. However, public health does advise on testing and worked with local hospitals when Ontario Health (former LHIN) put a 650 per week cap on Grey-Bruce testing. Should the same thing happen again, public health could issue an order that the cap be lifted. There is talk of hours being extended. If contact tracing becomes overwhelmed, Arra said it would cease and the health unit would move to outbreak management only.
Correspondence to the public from Grey Bruce Public Health over the past month included two key communications pieces, according to Arra.
The first urged people to stay home if they are sick. A number of the cases of COVID-19 in the past number of days were generated by “people who went to school and to work,” he said, despite having symptoms.
The other key piece of communication is one that stated public health did not order any school closures – closing one school and partly closing another was a school board decision,” confirmed Arra.
Board member Helen-Claire Tingling said that has to be communicated clearly.
“People assume it’s the board of health and there’s blowback.”
There was some discussion about easing off on press releases unless there’s a specific reason for issuing them, but Arra disagreed.
“Public health is the lead agency with a pandemic,” he stressed.
There is a need to provide accurate and timely information.
He used the recent spike in cases as an example. There appeared to be a connection with sports, and a press release on trends and precautions was issued. Public health needed to say something or risk losing credibility, he said.
As more information became available over the next few days, it became obvious that transmission was not happening in the classroom and it was not happening with the sport itself, with one exception – basketball, a sport that involves more face-to-face contact than hockey. Arra noted that players “are teammates, they have parties, they carpool. This is where transmission is happening.” That information was also provided to the public.
He added that people were saying “schools were not safe, hockey was not safe, and we needed to respond.”
Board member Chris Peabody, mayor of Brockton, commended the health unit staff on communication regarding St. Mary’s High School.
Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times