The Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) region continues to experience record-setting daily numbers of new COVID-19 cases, today reporting the highest ever case rate reported by any Public Health Unit in Canada since the pandemic began.
“This,” said Dr. Piotr Oglaza, Medical Officer of Health (MOH) for KFL&A Public Health, “is the immediate true impact of the Omicron variant, as it’s started to spread in this region and is now on track to be the dominant strain of COVID-19.”
Oglaza began today’s weekly pandemic update with an overview of current COVID-19 disease activity.
“We have just under 200 new cases today and we’re currently at 475 cases per 100,000 [people], which is, unfortunately, a new peak for us [and the country]. We’ve been setting these new peaks almost on a daily basis, and this represents really a significant Omicron variant activity in this region,” he said.
“Our per cent positivity is now up to 7.1 per cent, which is another new record high per cent positivity in this region. This number has more than doubled in less than one week from 4.2 per cent.”
One positive noted by the MOH is that, “4.2 per cent of the population is being tested in a week, which is also a very high number. That’s a good indicator; that means that people in this region are responding to the recommendations of getting tested when symptomatic, it is a record high.”
He also highlighted that the region is “testing nearly one in 10 kids between the ages of four to 12 every week, which is 10 per cent testing rate in a week. That’s really a very high testing rate,” noting those statistics pertained to the week ending on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021.
The per cent positivity for this population of children aged four to 12 is 3.3 per cent, which is half of the general population, “which indicates that this population of school-aged children four to 12 years old is not over-represented in the cases that we have really excellent testing rates,” Oglaza explained.
Omicron in KFL&A
Only six cases of Omicron have been confirmed by whole-genome sequencing, Dr. Oglaza said, “But really, when we look at the suspected Omicron cases… [there are] 526 suspect cases.”
The significant increase in cases since the initial cases of Omicron appeared locally is due to its higher transmissibility. “Our rate of cases among the unvaccinated population is now approximately two times higher than the rate of the vaccinated population, but that’s, again, an impact of Omicron, which is now demonstrating a significant vaccine escape,” he explained.
Oglaza indicated that still, “the two doses of vaccine provide protection against severe disease. The caveat to that is that the spread you’re seeing so far is predominantly in the younger population – almost two-thirds of the cases of Omicron are among the population of 18- to 29-year-olds and then an additional 26 per cent are in the population of 29 to 49 – so, spread is mainly occurring among the younger demographic; people who are less likely to be severely sick.”
This does not mean, he pointed out, that people who are eligible shouldn’t get a third dose of the vaccine.
“The main reason why we see that initial spread occurring in the younger population,” he said, was that, “there was an outbreak or spread among the population of this age, linked to the type of social interaction that individuals in this age group typically engage in; a congregation of a large number of people in a social setting with limited physical distancing, that really was the perfect storm for the spread of Omicron.”
However, he indicated that, as Omicron spreads, more vulnerable individuals could be at risk of a severe infection.
“We must be vigilant and do everything possible to curtail the spread, so the [Omicron variant] does not grow rapidly among the older adult demographic, which could potentially bring much more serious illness.”
Beginning on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, all people 18 and older in Ontario are eligible to get a third dose of vaccine. This is a good thing for KFL&A, but also for the rest of the province’s Public Health Units, Dr. Oglaza pointed out, because, “unfortunately, we’re probably not that far ahead of other regions. And unfortunately, if there are any lessons from how quickly Omicron spreads once introduced into the population it is that, sadly, we are going to see other parts of the province and other jurisdictions [affected], and that’s something that my colleagues from Public Health are looking at very seriously when deciding on what additional measures need to be implemented.”
Oglaza stated that they are seeing breakthrough infections of Omicron in people who have two doses of vaccine, and that “three doses provide much better protection, approximately 75 per cent vaccine effectiveness, which is less than what we had against [the] Delta [variant] with two doses. But it’s still the protection that could make a big difference on a population level.”
The MOH urged everyone who is eligible and has already received two doses to book their appointment for the third COVID-19 vaccine dose as soon as possible.
“We have a number of clinics available, and we’ll be expanding that availability in the coming days to offer this additional protection to everyone eligible in this community. So please, do take advantage of that and book your appointment,” he implored.
Education and Omicron
With local post-secondary institutions returning to virtual learning, Oglaza says one of the most important priorities of Public Health is to keep elementary and high school classrooms open, “this is really important for the social and mental well-being of students, and this is an absolute goal of our pandemic management, to enable that critical societal function to continue.”
He explained that any current school closures happening are “mainly due to the operational requirements or operational reasons. So the biggest impact of COVID-19 case contact management has been that a lot of staff [in those locations] are now required to stay home and self isolate instead of being able to come to work… [and these] have resulted in that transition to virtual learning for some of the select schools where really they’re heavily impacted by their staffing…being impacted by the need to self isolate.”
So far schools are not driving the spread of COVID, he relayed. “Cases in the school system are a reflection of really high COVID-19 activity in this community. They are not driving the spread. So in this scenario … continuing in-person schooling for as long as operationally possible [is the goal]. As many of my colleagues have mentioned, many times schools will be the absolute last sector to close. They’re not driving this pandemic, the benefits of continuing in-person learning far outweigh any risk of COVID-19.”
Stay safe over the holidays
For many individuals, their own individual vulnerability may not be high: they might be younger, they might be immunized, they may have three doses already, the MOH pointed out, “So, they may not be at very high risk themselves, but they can still transmit it to others. So, whenever you are going out, interacting with others in a social setting or otherwise, please do be very mindful of your symptoms.”
“If you experience any [symptoms],” he continued, “Stay calm. Seek testing, even if you have difficulty accessing [it]… The most infectious people are people who are symptomatic, so by staying at home, whether or not you choose to get tested, you are already reducing the number of people that you can pass the virus to. And that’s something that’s been critical in managing the spread.”
“Some individuals may choose to join other households for various reasons: for mental health reasons – we are social beings, we want to be together,” he assented, concluding, “when we are together, there are steps we can take to protect one another… monitoring for symptoms, not attending gatherings if you’re not feeling well.”
The simple gesture of staying home, Dr. Oglaza expressed, “could potentially save the life of another person, and I do strongly encourage everyone to be very thoughtful about what they’re doing and mindful of others, to protect themselves, but also their friends.”