COVID-19: London-area health units urge small holiday gatherings amid rising case rates

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With the holiday season rapidly approaching, and amid concerns of rising local COVID-19 rates and the new Omicron variant, London-area residents are being urged to keep indoor holiday gatherings small, to get vaccinated and to work remotely, where possible.

The recommendations come in a joint letter issued on Thursday by the acting medical officer of health for the Middlesex-London Health Unit and the medical officers of health for Huron Perth Public Health and Southwestern Public Health.

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The letter does not add restrictions or gathering limits to those already put in place by the province, but is to advise residents of the things they can do to limit the spread of COVID-19 over the holidays, as people gather indoors without masks, the officials said.

The recommendations, which take effect immediately and will be reassessed in four weeks, “strongly recommend” that:

  • Everyone limits indoor social gatherings in private dwellings to no more than 10 people. All attendees 12 years of age and older should be vaccinated.
  • All unvaccinated individuals 12 years of age and older avoid any non-essential indoor contact with individuals who are not part of their household.
  • Where possible, individuals work remotely.

During Thursday’s COVID-19 media briefing, Dr. Alex Summers, the acting medical officer of health for the London and Middlesex region, acknowledged the pandemic fatigue that many residents face, but says the extra steps are important to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

“We know that this is not the news that people are wanting to hear on Dec. 9,” he said, noting that his own family holiday plans were being cancelled or postponed.

“These are not easy days. But it is, again, efforts that we can take to limit close contact down … 15 to 30 per cent … that will hopefully avoid those increasing case numbers, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths that we want to avoid.”

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Summers was joined during the briefing by Dr. Joyce Lock, the medical officer of health for Southwestern Public Health, and Dr. Miriam Klassen, the medical officer of health for Huron Perth Public Health.

“Ontario has done really well in managing the transmission of COVID in recent months, and so there are more opportunities, there are more settings where we can gather. However, every time we get into contact with other people, the risk goes up,” Klassen said.

“Ask yourself, ‘What are the gatherings that are most important to me?’ And then, if you are going to gather with others, ask yourself, ‘How can I make them as safe as possible?'” such as through the use of Zoom calls or being outdoors.

The letter of recommendation also asks that local residents get vaccinated if they aren’t already, noting that while breakthrough cases can occur in fully vaccinated individuals, “the illness experienced is shorter in duration and much less severe.”

“Unvaccinated individuals are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and at a higher risk of experiencing severe health outcomes when they do become infected. The Delta variant, which is the dominant variant in Ontario, spreads quickly and easily, and will find those most susceptible.”

The officials say vaccination alone isn’t enough, and by reducing the number of close contacts people have, serious illness and hospitalization can be prevented in those most vulnerable.

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The recommendations come two days after the first Omicron variant case was confirmed in London-Middlesex, identified as part of a larger cluster of at least 50 positive COVID-19 cases originally linked to two travellers who arrived in London from Nigeria late last month.

Scientists are still racing to learn how easily Omicron, first identified in South Africa, spreads, whether it causes more severe illness than previous variants, and how much it might evade the protection of prior vaccination.

Summers said it’s likely that Omicron will overtake Delta as the predominant variant globally and across the province, and “I think it’s going to be sooner than later.”

“We are consistently seeing that the vaccine has sustained protection against all variants types, including Omicron from what we’re seeing to date, when it comes to hospitalization,” he said.

The outstanding question, Summers noted, was how effective the current vaccines are when it comes to preventing infection and transmission of the Omicron variant.

“There is some growing evidence that the third dose booster may be an important part of sustained protection, at least in other countries,” he said.

“Obviously, here in Ontario, we have a very different context because of the delayed second dose for a majority of people in our province. So we will still have to really see what happens.”

The total number of Omicron cases currently confirmed in the region stands at four, however, health officials note that the recent increase in local COVID-19 cases has been due to the already dominant Delta variant.

Transmission, particularly that seen in the last six to eight weeks, has been driven by unregulated, familiar environments such as private homes where people don’t need to be vaccinated, aren’t wearing masks and are close in proximity to friends and family, Summers said.

“It is in the homes, in the comfortable but familiar areas where transmission is happening, and that’s what these recommendations speak to,” Summers said, noting that the province’s science table indicated that greatly reducing close contacts would help keep the local hospital system from becoming overwhelmed.

“If that is not going to do the trick, we will have to look at additional restrictions in malls, sporting events, public events, et cetera.”

As of Wednesday, the region’s seven-day moving average of daily cases stood at 37.6, up from 19.3 a week earlier.

Earlier this week, Ontario’s pandemic advisers projected that the province’s hospitals may be strained by mid-January, with possibly 3,000 new daily infections, even without Omicron, if there is no change in contacts and with only 30 per cent of young children vaccinated.

With those projections in mind, why not issue something stronger than formal recommendations, health officials were asked during the briefing.

Lock, from Southwestern Public Health, replied that a majority of residents, throughout the pandemic, have been committed to doing their part to limit the spread of the virus by following issued health guidelines and getting vaccinated.

“We’re delighted that we’ve got people vaccinated. At this time last year, with these kind of numbers, we would have been in grey-lockdown, but we’re not. Our stores are open, our businesses are open,” said Lock.

“This is just a reminder, and we expect that our citizens will continue to step up as they have time and time again to do their part to get us through the pandemic.”

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The three were also asked whether they expected fully vaccinated residents who refrained from hosting large holiday events last year to listen to the new recommendations.

“This is not something any of us want to hear, that cases are going up and that there’s a new variant that spreads more easily. However, we also all understand what needs to be done,” said Klassen, from Huron Perth Public Health.

“We’re asking that everybody think about what they can bring to the table, and what they can do to decrease the risk, not only for themselves on an individual level, but also as a population.”

Ontario recorded nearly 1,300 new cases on Thursday, the highest number of daily cases recorded in the province since late May.

Meanwhile, the province’s science advisory table recommended that health officials implement voluntary rapid testing in settings such as schools and workplaces in areas with higher transmission, as often as two to three times a week in some situations.

The recommendations focus on testing unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people, but say that in areas where new daily cases approach 175 per 100,000 people per week, it could be offered voluntarily to vaccinated people as well.

— with files from The Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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