A combination of the highly transmissible delta variant and unvaccinated people is behind a substantial increase in COVID-19 cases compared to the same time last year, according to Peterborough Public Health.
During a media briefing by the health unit held Thursday (October 21), Donna Churipuy, the director of public health programs and COVID response incident commander, revealed the number of new cases reported in September and in October to date is substantially higher than during the same two months of 2020, at the beginning of the second wave.
During those two months last fall, when vaccines were not yet available, 43 news cases were confirmed locally — much lower than the 199 new cases reported last month and so far in October.
While that comparison is discouraging on the surface, acting medical officer of health Dr. Ian Gemmill said there’s a simple reason: the emergence and continued presence of the highly contagious delta variant and the number of people who remain unvaccinated.
“While the vaccines have been very helpful, there’s still that 10, 15, 20 per cent who are eligible (for immunization) that has not been immunized,” he said. “There are still the 9,000 kids below (age) 12. That represents another 13 per cent of the population. We still have a lot of susceptibles out there, and this virus will go where there are susceptibles.”
With about 5,000 local residents eligible for a vaccine not yet having begun the immunization process, Dr. Gemmill said he’s disappointed, adding “It’s almost a duty” to get vaccinated.
“There are many interventions out there to try to get this (immunization) rate as high as possible. It’s not mandatory. Nobody has to get vaccinated but perhaps as people see that their activities are severely restricted, that may them the impetus to get immunized.”
Despite the number of local residents who are not yet immunized, Peterborough-area vaccination rates continue to climb slowly but surely.
As of late Wednesday afternoon (October 20), 86.1 per cent of eligible residents aged 12 and up have received one dose while 82.3 per cent have received two doses — slightly below the provincial full vaccination rate of 83 per cent of all eligible Ontarians.
In the 12 to 17 age group, 85.3 per cent have received one dose, while 78 per cent are now fully immunized — higher than the 76.6 per cent provincial full vaccination rate for that age group.
Ahead, pending Health Canada approval, is the immunization of children aged 5 to 11. Churipuy said Peterborough Public Health is working on an immunization plan for that age group so that it will be on go when word is received to proceed. She said the plan includes clinics in elementary schools and a return to a booking system for vaccinations.
“That allows us to plan longer appointment times for children and their parents … we’re planning for a child-friendly experience,” Churipuy said.
“It will be a pediatric dose. Staff will need to be trained and we will need the most up-to-date information for parents so they can discuss the vaccine with their children.”
Despite the revelation that the year-over-year numbers show more new cases now as opposed to last year, the current status of the pandemic is encouraging.
As of late Wednesday afternoon, there were 18 active cases in the region with 132 close contacts of cases being monitored. Both these numbers are down substantially from the last briefing two weeks ago. In addition, there are no current outbreaks.
Since Monday this week, seven new local cases have been detected, an encouraging downward trend from the 26 new cases reported the week of October 4 and the 18 new cases confirmed the week of October 11. Still, Dr. Gemmill warns this is not time for complacency.
“The thing about this virus is it can turn on a dime and turn things dramatically worse,” said Dr. Gemmill, pointing to the sizable uptick in new cases being experienced in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick.
“I think people in Saskatchewan have been very surprised. They thought that they were out of this and stopped using their masks. The next thing you know people are being transferred to Ontario ICU units.”
“It (COVID-19) will keep popping up all over the place until we have full control,” he added. “We’re way better than we were this time last year. We’ve got great vaccine compliance. We have policies in place that protect the population but this thing will pop up wherever we let our guard down. I can’t wait for the day when we can say ‘It’s all over, take off your masks’ — but that day is not here yet.”
Also on Thursday’s call was Julie Ingram, Peterborough Public Health’s environmental health manager. She spoke to awareness and enforcement of the regulations around the mandated checking for proof of vaccination by businesses, especially restaurants.
“Last week, our inspectors were at 26 food premises in relation to proof of vaccine inquiries and complaints received and about 50 per cent were fully compliant with the requirement,” she says.
“While I’d like to see that number higher, we’ll get there, especially with the rollout out of the app that businesses can use. That will make things easier for them.”
To date, just one Peterborough business — Peterburgers on George Street North — has been charged with failure to comply with proof of vaccination checks. Asked if the owners are now complying, Ingram would only say the investigation is “continuing.”
“If additional enforcement action is taken, whether that’s further charges or additional orders on the business, it will be disclosed.”
“We have a variety of (investigative) techniques that we use,” Ingram explained. “We use secret diners. We watch social media. We conduct surveillance. Any one of those could be used as part of an investigation.”
With this being the last media briefing before Halloween, Dr. Gemmill offered guidance for children who will be out trick or treating, and for those handing out candy.
That includes children wearing face masks underneath costumes and, for those answering the door, washing their hands regularly before distributing wrapped goodies.
Also in attendance for Thursday’s media briefing were Peterborough Mayor Diane Therrien and Board of Health chair and Selwyn mayor Andy Mitchell.