An "aggressive" vaccination strategy is helping to keep Windsor-Essex in the clear from a third COVID-19 wave that is hitting the rest of the province especially hard, according to local health officials.
But, Dr. Wassim Saad, chief of staff for Windsor Regional Hospital, said it could also be that the region is yet again just a few weeks behind from seeing what the Greater Toronto Area and central Ontario are experiencing — as was the case in the first two waves.
Hospitals in the region feel that they're in a better position than others across the province due to relatively lower case counts in the region, but are staying vigilant and preparing for a potential influx of COVID-19 patients.
Saad told CBC Radio's Windsor Morning host Tony Doucette Thursday that there's "a couple factors" that could be at play as to why the region has a low number of hospitalized patients and cases.
In total, there are 14 people in hospital locally with four in intensive care. Windsor Regional Hospital has eight of these patients — one of the lowest COVID-19 intakes the acute care facility has had since August 2020, according to Saad.
But across the province, ICU admissions are at their highest yet. for any of the 3 waves.
LISTEN: Why is Windsor-Essex not seeing the third wave?
"Windsor-Essex was one of the regions that received both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine very early on," Saad said, noting this was because the area was a provincial hotspot.
"As a result of that, especially in the long-term care population a lot of elderly who were most vulnerable did receive a vaccine earlier than those in the province."
The region was also prioritized in a pilot vaccine rollout project that provided 57 pharmacies across the region with 500 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Windsor-Essex was one of three health unit regions to participate, along with Toronto and Kingston.
Medical officer of health for Windsor-Essex, Dr. Wajid Ahmed, also agreed that the local vaccine strategy has benefited the case rate.
"We are vaccinating thousands and thousands of people every day and this has been going on since the beginning of this year. This in combination with some of these measures that are currently in place and people following those measures," he said.
As of Thursday, more than 81,335 people in Windsor-Essex have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Saad said many of the vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe illness even after just one dose.
Yet, the province is seeing people younger than 60 in hospital and ICU — an age group that has not yet been eligible to receive the vaccine in Windsor-Essex.
Emergency and critical care physicians have also highlighted the shifting trend, according to CBC Toronto. Officials have noted anecdotally in recent weeks that patients appeared to be showing up to hospitals both younger and more seriously ill than during the first two waves of the pandemic in Ontario.
'We are in a bubble right now'
Knowing this, Saad said Windsor Regional Hospital staff have learned how unpredictable the pandemic can be and haven't "let their guard down."
"We are in a bit of a bubble right now," he said. "We don't exactly know why and it could just be we're going to get hit later."
Saad noted that a majority of the province's cases are a variant of concern but locally, Windsor-Essex variance positivity rate is less than 10 per cent. As of Thursday, the region had 79 preliminary or confirmed variant of concern cases, four of which are the variant first identified in the U.K.
Of these cases, 28 are active and being followed by the health unit.
On Thursday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford imposed province-wide shutdown measures.
In a WRH board meeting Thursday evening, David Musyj, WRH president and CEO, said that Windsor-Essex has not seen the same rate of variant cases as the rest of the province.
"We haven't felt it yet, and I hope we never feel it, and I hope because of the lockdown we don't feel it in Windsor-Essex," he said.
He added that he hopes the Windsor healthcare sector will be able to help the rest of the province move through the third wave quicker.
The hospital has three COVID patients in the intensive care unit, and eight COVID patients total.
The low numbers and experience from the two previous waves of the pandemic have WRH officials feeling confident they can handle a third wave and any potential patient transfers to the hospital that may be needed.
"I might be biased, but I'd say we're a 10 out of 10," Karen Riddell, WRH chief operating officer and chief nursing executive, said when asked the rate the hospital's preparedness. "We're ready to go."
But the pandemic has meant that the hospital has had to delay many elective surgeries. There are now around 2,000 patients scheduled for a procedure, according to Rosemary Petrakos, vice-president of surgery, peri-operative and women's and children's services at WRH.
She estimates WRH is 50 per cent behind where they were this time last year in that regard.
"It's still an uphill battle," she said.
Kristin Kennedy, CEO of Erie Shores Healthcare in Leamington, says the hospital feels prepared for a third wave through experience in the first and second.
"We're quite familiar with this now. There's an ease around doing it, unfortunately, at this point," she said.
Kennedy says the hospital will be able to open additional beds and shift staff where they are needed most, among other measures.
She says one area the hospital would like to improve in the third wave is communication.
"I think we've learned from the first wave and the second wave, we need to do some better communication with our families — especially in the event that we have to look at reducing visitors again," she said.
She says that there are fewer than 10 COVID patients in the hospital right now.
Janice Kaffer, the president and CEO of Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare (HDGH) in Windsor, said that because HDGH is a post-acute care hospital, it is not likely to see as much of an impact as others.
Kaffer says HDGH is prepared to assist other hospitals, and has 30 beds for patients who are awaiting long-term care.
She added that an area HDGH is looking at in the third wave is how to approach the mental health effects of the pandemic.
"We've seen some concerning trends, particularly in the children and youth in our communities across the country," she said.
Kaffer says that's prompted the hospital to think about how they can provide mental health support differently — not just to the community, but also to staff.