Dr. Ian Arra: Light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel getting much brighter

·7 min read

HANOVER – Dr. Ian Arra, medical officer of health for Grey-Bruce, described the “hockey hub” system as the “hammer to put the last nail in the coffin of COVID-19.”

Arra was speaking from the hockey hub at the P&H Centre in Hanover, in a special livestreamed presentation by Bruce Power on March 10.

After messages of support from Bruce Power officials and Grey-Bruce-Owen Sound MPP Bill Walker, the presentation began.

The main topic was vaccines, but a number of other issues were discussed – among them International Women’s Day. Arra noted, “Most of our (public health) people are women.”

Arra gave a brief outline of the course of the local battle against COVID-19, beginning over a year ago. While most people didn’t start worrying about the new virus until March, he’d been touching base with county and other officials in January and February about precautions.

By April, Arra said there was “full control over the pandemic in Grey-Bruce,” something that has “remained consistent at every stage – the first wave, school reopening, the second wave.”

He spoke of the things that made this possible – the public commitment from a community, the tremendous political effort, the “bang-up job” on the part of local journalism in distributing timely and accurate information, and of course, the dedication and expertise of health workers.

“We are ready for the rollout of vaccine,” he said.

Arra went over the reasons why the vaccine is safe, reassuring that “no corners were cut” in its development. He explained how, unlike earlier vaccines made with a weakened version of a whole virus, the COVID-19 vaccine is made with a portion of the virus that triggers an immune response in the body.

“It’s a safe product,” he said.

Arra said plans are in place for “multiple scenarios” to distribute the vaccine.

He described the province’s pilot project in which Grey Bruce Public Health participated that will make it possible for those 80-plus who have no family doctor or see a doctor outside the area to register for their COVID-19 shot (effective March 15).

Arra noted the first phase in the province’s vaccination plan is almost complete – people in long-term care including residents, staff and essential caregivers – as well as emergency workers and people in the over-80 age group.

Phase two will see essential workers and people with medical conditions that would make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, vaccinated.

Phase three is the rest of us.

“The only bottleneck is the availability of vaccine,” said Grey-Bruce’s top doctor.

The question-and-answer period that followed saw the conversation between Bruce Power’s James Scongack, executive vice-president of corporate affairs and operational services, and Arra go almost a half-hour past the planned one-hour time limit.

Scongack said he’d gone through the more than 100 questions submitted by the public prior to the event and noted some common themes. The first one was, “Why should I not get the vaccine?” He asked Arra what he’d been hearing from the public.

Arra said the response he’s been hearing has been “very positive” and told of one person who’d sent an apple pie to the physician after receiving the vaccine.

The public perception is it’s a “passport to be free again,” said Arra.

He noted that of the 12,000 people vaccinated to date in Grey-Bruce, there have been no serious reactions (this doesn’t include minor things like a sore arm or a bit of a rash). Weekly conversations with his colleagues confirm there’s a very low number of reactions to the vaccine.

Arra further noted that in December, 75 per cent of people said they wanted the vaccine, with only one per cent against vaccination. Between 20 and 30 per cent of people intend to get the vaccine later, but not right now.

Scongack asked what he’d advise a 70-year-old who wants to wait to get the vaccine, perhaps a more effective one than what’s available.

Arra said that’s an unusual reaction.

“In my experience, they say, ‘How soon can I get it.’”

He added that he’d explain it’s a safe vaccine, and that any immunity provides peace of mind. By getting the shot, the person would be protecting his friends, too.

“Partial protection now is better than complete protection a month from now,” Arra said.

Scongack spoke of “vaccine shopping.”

Arra put to rest the idea that one vaccine is less effective by saying “the real-life effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine is very similar to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Even if it were 65 per cent effective, I would get it. Don’t wait for another vaccine – it will save lives.”

He added that any one of the four vaccines presently available could achieve the 70-75 per cent for herd immunity.

Scongack and Arra both stressed the need for accurate information. The places to look for it are the Grey Bruce Public Health and Health Canada websites. Arra also referred to the CDC Atlanta site (Centre for Disease Control), and said the province has made a lot of information available.

Arra added that people can utilize the help line on the health unit website to leave a message.

“We’ll get back to them,” he said.

Many of those questions will undoubtedly involve making appointments for getting a vaccination. Arra went back to the multiple plans for vaccinating the public, from provincial plans for pharmacists to participate, to mini-hubs in every community, to mobile units, to the three mass vaccination hockey hubs in Grey-Bruce. The one thing the plans have in common is rolling out the vaccine as soon as possible.

Arra confirmed that the health unit gets notification about vaccine availability with about two weeks’ notice.

“Until we have confirmation, we can’t book. As soon as we have confirmation, we will reach out,” he said.

Vaccine is distributed within days of it being received.

He stressed the need for patience.

“Be patient, stay informed. Everyone will be vaccinated.”

As for when that will happen, Arra said that by late March or early April, the scenario will change to, “How fast can we go?” He’s been right on his timing so far, predicting a vaccine would be available by the end of 2020 – and it was.

Using the hockey hubs in Hanover, Kincardine and Owen Sound, everyone in Grey-Bruce could be vaccinated in 21 days “if we go full-blast,” said Arra.

Until vaccines become widely available, clinics will be small and organized according to what’s available. Arra said a clinic for vaccination of “our own staff was cancelled so people 80-plus could get it.”

Three of the four vaccines presently available require a second shot. Arra explained the time between the two shots has been extended. Initially, the spacing was what had been used during vaccine trials, but real-life experience showed a longer time between the shots was possible.

“We expected the time would increase, and it did,” Arra said.

Although the second shot should be the same as the first one, Arra did open the possibility of mixed vaccines.

The topic of COVID-19 variants was raised, and Arra stressed that the “three Ws – wash your hands, wear your mask correctly and watch your distance – that kept us safe for the past year, will continue doing so with the variants.

“Distance is the key with the variants,” he said. The dire situation in some other communities need not be reflected here – “people here will do the right thing.”

Towards the end of the session, Scongack and Arra discussed the mental health aspects of fighting COVID-19. Arra noted this area went through 2020 with no deaths from COVID-19. During that time there were 14 deaths from drug overdoses.

“There are deaths from COVID-19 and from methods to control COVID-19,” said Arra, “which is why the authorities want to open things up as fast as possible, as long as it’s safe.”

He advised people not to be afraid to ask for help – or offer it.

“Ask people how they’re doing,” Arra said.

Scongack suggested that when COVID-19 is behind us, “We should come together like this for mental health.”

The session ended on a note of optimism. The battle against COVID-19 has progressed from “seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” said Arra. “We’re just exiting the tunnel. We are steps away from ending the pandemic.”

He concluded by saying, “Dreams are not built on wishes but on hard work.”

Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times