A variant-driven surge in COVID-19 cases might prevent a southwestern Ontario region from easing pandemic restrictions with the rest of the province next month, and stronger public health measures may return if the situation doesn't improve, the area's top doctor said Wednesday.
Waterloo Region reported the highest number of new COVID-19 cases in the province on Wednesday. At 71 new infections, the area surpassed cases reported in the longstanding hot spots of Peel Region and Toronto.
Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, Waterloo's medical officer of the health, said the highly transmissible Delta variant is likely behind the rise in cases, hospitalizations and outbreaks.
"Waterloo Region residents should assume that Delta is circulating broadly," she said, noting that the virus is largely spreading among young adults who haven't yet been vaccinated.
If current trends hold, the region may not move to the second phase of the province's reopening plan, which will see restrictions for businesses and gatherings rolled back next month, Wang said.
It might also mean measures that were eased last week, when Ontario entered the first phase of its reopening, could be short-lived, said Wang.
"We may not be able to move to Step 2 when the rest of the province does. I am also in discussions with the province regarding our current situation in Step 1," she said.
Wang urged people not to gather outside their households and if they do gather with others, to do so outdoors and wear masks.
"We need to all pull together and exert the utmost caution," she said.
Ontario's overall COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been declining in recent weeks – the province 384 new infections Wednesday – as Waterloo's figures have moved upward.
The region, which includes the cities of Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge, reported 494 active cases as of Wednesday afternoon.
There were 32 confirmed cases of the Delta variant in Waterloo – the third-highest count in the province, after Peel and Toronto. Wang said the number of Delta cases in the region is believed to be much higher.
Ontario's science advisors have said the Delta variant is about 50 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which drove the punishing third wave of infections this spring. People with one vaccine dose are also less protected against the Delta variant.
Most of the spread in Waterloo Region is occurring among unvaccinated people, an issue highlighted by an ongoing shelter outbreak that's infected 87 people experiencing homelessness.
Wang said more than 87 per cent of the people infected in that outbreak were not vaccinated, nearly 10 per cent were partially vaccinated and a small number were vaccinated but did not yet have full protection.
The virus is also spreading through social gatherings, and mainly among younger adults who haven't been vaccinated yet or were infected before full protection kicked in.
Nearly 80 per cent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Waterloo Region aren't vaccinated, Wang said, and 21 per cent were partially vaccinated.
One confirmed Delta case is considered a "breakthrough" case in a fully vaccinated person. Wang said that individual did not experience symptoms.
The province designated Waterloo Region as a Delta hot spot last week, prioritizing people there for accelerated second vaccine doses. However, the region warned that those requesting a new second-dose date might be in for a long wait.
"Depending on the volume of requests and vaccine supply, it may take 2-4 weeks to be contacted about an earlier second-dose appointment," it said Tuesday. "Please be patient."
Area politicians have called on the government for help.
"We need help to put this fire out IMMEDIATELY," NDP legislator Catherine Fife, who represents Waterloo, wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
Fife and Kitchener Centre legislator Laura Mae Lindo wrote to the premier and health minister earlier this week asking for support. They raised concerns that their region hasn't received an equitable allotment of vaccine doses.
"Constituents remain concerned that our region continues to be shortchanged, exacerbating our situation locally," they wrote.
A spokesperson for the health minister said the province would provide additional vaccine doses to Delta hot spots once inventory is used up and said structures are in place to preserve hospital capacity.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 16, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press