Because of changes in who gets tested for COVID-19, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Elgin, St. Thomas and Oxford is no longer an accurate measure of the spread of the virus through the community, Dr. Joyce Lock, Medical Officer of Health for Southwestern Public Health, said in a news briefing on Wednesday, Jan. 5.
She explained that, leading up to Christmas, assessment centres across the province were being swamped by residents who had developed Covid symptoms, likely due to the highly contagious new Omicron variant.
As a result, the Ontario government had decided to limit testing to those at the highest risk of developing severe symptoms, or caregivers for those persons.
If those developing symptoms had access to a rapid antigen test, they should test themselves at home. Otherwise, anyone developing Covid symptoms, such as fatigue or a sore throat, should assume they had the virus and isolate at home.
Nearly 30 percent of the more accurate PCR tests being conducted across Ontario were coming back as positive for the virus, so such an assumption was “a good bet,” she stated.
Without test results, Dr. Lock continued, the health unit would no longer provide individual case management and contact tracing.
Instead, someone who has had two doses of Covid vaccine and has symptoms should isolate for five days, and could go out after that if symptoms were easing, she said. Someone unvaccinated must self-isolate for 10 days, and leave home only to seek medical attention.
Similar rules applied to those who resided in the same household as someone in isolation, waiting five days if vaccinated and 10 days if not.
Finally, she asked anyone with a confirmed or suspected Covid case to let close contacts know so they could take appropriate action.
Generally, a “close contact” would be someone who had spent 15 minutes or more within two metres of the symptomatic person, in the two days prior to showing symptoms.
Case numbers as a means of tracking the spread of COVID-19 through the community “have never been perfectly accurate,” Dr. Lock said. But now, significant numbers of symptomatic persons would no longer be tested unless they developed severe symptoms or required hospitalization.
That day, 109 new cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed by testing in Elgin, St. Thomas and Oxford, and the number of confirmed ongoing cases being tracked stood at 1,401.
That, she said, was no longer an accurate reflection of the virus in a community, and other indicators had to be looked at.
One was the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back as positive, which the previous day in Ontario had been 28 percent.
Another was the number of local hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care units, which as of Wednesday, Jan. 5, stood at 18 and five.
“This is quite high for a region of our size,” Dr. Lock said.
Vaccinations continued to be vitally important to combat the risk that hospitals would become overwhelmed with severe Covid cases, she stressed.
Despite rising numbers of cases due to Omicron, vaccines already given were doing their jobs by reducing the severity of illness in those who were fully immunized, she stated.
With two doses, the risk of having to be hospitalized with Covid was reduced by 83 percent, and of needing to be admitted to an intensive care unit by 95 percent.
Asked about recent deaths involving area residents in their 40s or 50s, Dr. Lock said that the older someone was, the greater risk of severe consequences from developing the virus.
That was why third doses were particularly important to those who were over 50, she said. Anyone that age or older should book an appointment to get a booster dose.
In addition, she said, fourth doses were now starting to be offered to residents of long-term care and retirement homes.
Congregate living settings such as those led to an increased risk of outbreaks, and the area’s oldest residents tended to have lower immunity to disease in any case, so a fourth dose would boost that.
Dr. Lock noted that prior to Omicron, two doses were about 90 percent effective in protecting against Covid. However, those vaccines were not quite as effective against the new variant, so two doses provided only 50 to 60 percent protection. A third dose increased that to 70 to 80 percent.
SWPH was now booking appointments four weeks ahead at its mass-immunization clinics in St. Thomas and Woodstock, so currently new appointments were being made for February.
Mobile clinics were also being offered in other parts of the region, she added.
Asked if SWPH had a higher death rate than elsewhere in the province, given 18 fatalities since Dec. 1, Dr. Lock said the unit’s rate was slightly higher, but its population was also somewhat older than the rest of the province.
Rob Perry, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Aylmer Express