Special statement from Dr. Vera Etches

  • Community Update

Hello. Bonjour. Kwey.

Current monitoring indicators show a consistent and significant increase in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 over the last week, and I am concerned. As we have seen in the past, more people testing positive will likely lead to more hospitalizations, further impacts to the health care system and possibly more deaths. 

I’m also worried that if this trend continues, we will see an increase in social disruptions, including more class and school dismissals and the reintroduction of restrictions on gatherings in homes and perhaps in public settings such as restaurants and bars, cinemas, fitness facilities and other businesses. Too many people will have to be isolating for the holidays to prevent transmission of COVID-19 to their loved ones.

Our rate of infection is similar to what it was at this time last year but we are seeing more outbreaks, particularly in elementary schools and in extra-curricular settings where people are not vaccinated. The increase in outbreaks with COVID-19 introduced into schools this week has been explosive. The Science Table data points to growing challenges with higher rates of COVID-19 due to the Delta variant circulating. At the same time, we continue to learn more about the transmissibility and virulence of the Omicron variant.  

The risk is here now. What we choose to do today will make a difference in the coming weeks and months. To reduce community risk, I am urging all individuals to pause and limit certain activities before and during the holiday season, particularly indoor activities when it involves individuals who are not yet fully vaccinated and where masks are not being worn. 

I cannot stress enough the importance of getting vaccinated, wearing a mask and maintaining a physical distance from others.  Daily screening before going to work or school in-person and staying home when sick and getting tested for COVID-19 are also key.  However, as testing usually detects COVID-19 after it has been transmitted further, the best way to limit passing COVID-19 on is to prevent close contacts in higher risk settings. This means limiting the number of extra-curricular activities for children who are not yet fully vaccinated, especially where masks are not worn and distancing is not practised. Now is the time to prioritize school participation for children. Avoid the three Cs – crowded places, closed spaces with poor ventilation and close contact with others from multiple households. These actions are necessary to help prevent the spread of the virus, keep kids in school and reduce the risk to our health and the social activities we have been able to enjoy once again.

While there is reason for concern, and to remain vigilant, there is also good news to share. More and more people are protected with vaccination. Vaccination provides good protection against ending up admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU). To date, 82 per cent of eligible residents are fully vaccinated and 87 per cent have received at least one dose. And I am incredibly pleased to see the progress we are making with our five to 11 age group: more than 40 per cent have put on a brave face, rolled up their sleeve and received their first dose. There is still a lot of capacity for children’s immunization, so please book your child’s appointment today, or simply drop-in to one of the many after-school clinics in a neighbourhood near you. The time to protect your children with vaccination is now, with rates of COVID growing very steeply in children 5-11 and with the risk of encountering COVID-19 expected to keep growing.The schedule of school-based clinics, which do not require an appointment, is on the OPH website and I encourage people to drop in as soon as they can.

I do want to caution that even with this notable progress, we won’t see a significant impact of the vaccines in schools for some time until more of this younger age group is fully vaccinated with two doses – likely in the new year, around February. Let’s keep up this progress, and we’ll get there together.

Modelling from the Province this week shows vaccine effectiveness in Ontario remains very high but experience in other countries suggests we will need to boost immunity with third doses. Starting Monday, December 13 at 8 am, residents born in 1971 or earlier will be able to book a third dose.

Ottawa residents who meet the criteria are also encouraged to reach out to local pharmacies using the provincial pharmacy locator to find those that provide the booster dose. Some primary care physicians are also providing third dose boosters.

I strongly recommend that residents book an appointment or drop-in to a pharmacy for a third dose as soon as they become eligible. This along with continuing to follow public health measures will help reduce the burden on our health care system in the weeks and months ahead.

As the holiday season continues, I want to remind all of us that our actions make a difference to keep each other safer when gathering. I know it feels like we missed out on a traditional holiday last year, and while we are in a dramatically better position this year thanks to the vaccine, we must continue to practise safer behaviours, especially when it comes to protecting people around us who are at higher risk and people who are not yet fully vaccinated.

While gatherings are currently permitted, families should consider their own unique situations when choosing to gather with others. Is there someone who may be at higher risk? What is the vaccination status of other guests? Choose ways to make gatherings safer, such as limiting the number of guests, taking activities outdoors, having hand sanitizer available, opening a window to increase ventilation. Maintain physical distance and wear a mask if indoors with someone who is not vaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown. And as always, stay home if anyone in the household is sick, even if symptoms are mild.

Next, I would like to provide an update on testing.

Earlier today, the Science Table released a brief related to the use of rapid antigen tests for voluntary screen testing. Voluntary screen testing is the practice of testing asymptomatic individuals at regular intervals in settings where the risk for transmission is moderate – such as schools and workplaces. The Science Table recommends using this testing approach in elementary schools and a “test to stay” approach for individuals (contacts) in schools who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 but do not have symptoms.  OPH looks forward to reviewing these recommendations and exploring how this would be implemented in Ottawa. More guidance to come.

The federal and provincial ministries of health are planning to offer pop-up rapid antigen test distribution sites in Ottawa. The Province has also informed us they will be providing rapid antigen test kits to families over the holiday break.These tests are an additional screening tool for asymptomatic individuals who are not known to have had contact with a case of COVID-19 and who would like to take extra precautions.

To date, two schools are using rapid antigen tests: Carson Grove Elementary School and Chapel Hill Catholic School. These are being used after students returned following school closures to help parents with an additional screening tool and to help monitor for a risk of ongoing transmission more closely. Ottawa Public Health is also currently working to offer rapid antigen tests in other schools where COVID-19 rates are high. Rapid antigen tests are for asymptomatic unvaccinated students to use while attending class – not students who have been dismissed as part of an exposed cohort or as high-risk contacts. For students that are high-risk contacts or students that have symptoms, rapid antigen tests are not appropriate; these individuals should be tested using lab-based PCR tests available from the school or at an assessment centre. 

While testing and managing confirmed cases helps, that alone is not enough to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The natural time it takes for a test to be taken, processed, reported and then for people’s contacts to be reached gives time for exponential growth to occur if other precautions are not in place. Using the prevention measures I keep mentioning does make a difference, even with Delta and Omicron variants.

Lastly, I want residents to know that I have a lot of hope for 2022. I know the news of the new Omicron variant is causing some people to feel anxious, and after almost two years into this pandemic, we’re all feeling completely done with COVID. If there is one thing I have learned these last two years, it’s that we are braver and more resilient than we might realize, and we are stronger together.

My advice is this: find joy. Whatever that means for you. Every day, set aside time – even if it’s just a few minutes – to do something that brings you joy. For me, I have started knitting little gifts for people, and I am making sure I get outside for exercise, with a friend when possible – I never regret it.Thank you. Merci. Meegwetch.