Ottawa kids still at risk over holidays despite COVID-19 vaccine progress: Etches

The Ford government is under fire for not doing more to make rapid antigen tests more accessible and free.

Dr. Vera Etches is ringing warning bells Thursday about Ottawa residents gathering with unvaccinated friends and family — especially young kids — over the upcoming holiday season.

Ottawa’s medical officer of health told media Thursday morning that she’s concerned about a “consistent and significant increase” in COVID-19 cases over the past week, many of which are tied to outbreaks in local elementary schools.

Adding to the mix is a newly confirmed case of the Omicron variant of concern, which was detected in a traveller who recently returned to Ottawa. So far there are five confirmed cases of Omicron in the city, all connected to travel.

Looking ahead to holiday gatherings at the end of the year, Etches said she is “urging all individuals to pause and limit certain activities before — now — and during the holiday season.”

“The risk is here now. What we choose to do today will make a difference in the coming weeks and months,” she said.

When it comes to the holidays themselves, Etches said residents should avoid indoor activities with non-vaccinated people where masks aren’t being worn.

Etches is also asking parents to “limit” certain high-risk extracurricular activities for their kids. She gave the example of choosing one after-school sports activity to continue rather than three as a way to mitigate the risks of transmission.

While Ottawa boasts the highest rate in the province for children aged five to 11 getting vaccinated — more than 40 per cent of local kids now have their first doses — Etches said those rates will not be enough to protect the city’s youngest residents from infection over the holidays.

“That vaccine hasn’t had enough time to protect them,” she said, noting that most kids getting vaccinated now will only have a full course of two doses by February.

Ottawa’s top doctor stopped short of saying she would implement new restrictions on private gatherings or capacity limits in restaurants and gyms, as health units such as Windsor-Essex have done.

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Hospitalizations remain low in Ottawa, but are sure to rise if exponential increases in cases continue among those aged five to 11, Etches said. New restrictions could be in the books if Ottawa’s health-care system cannot cope with rising infections.

“That may follow, if needed,” she said.

Etches said Ottawa has begun rolling out rapid antigen tests as a voluntary screening tool at elementary schools facing high rates of the virus and in areas of the city experiencing high case counts, such as Barrhaven.

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Half Moon Bay Public School and a martial arts studio in the south-end neighbourhood recently had to close because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Etches did say that this year’s holiday season is “dramatically better” than the last because of high vaccination rates in the city.

She said it’s her “strong recommendation” that anyone eligible for a booster shot get one as soon as they’re able, with bookings open to those aged 50 and older in Ottawa as of Monday.

“Vaccination provides good protection against ending up in an intensive care unit,” Etches said.

For those who might be gathering over the holidays in groups where everyone is fully vaccinated, Etches said residents should still keep some basic principles in mind to reduce risk.

This includes avoiding the three Cs: crowded places without masks, close contact with people from multiple households and being in closed situations without ventilation.

Opening windows and meeting outside remain good tools for reducing the risk of transmission, she said.

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