Greg Foisy of Beamsville, Ian Hamilton of Fonthill, Robert Jordan of Smithville, and Jim Campbell of Fonthill, enjoy an afternoon of golf last Saturday, as Lookout Point Golf Club reopened, with restrictions in place. DON RICKERS

Niagara Covid cases trend downward, but clouds remain on horizon

Pelham golfers were teeing off last Saturday, and the skateboarder crowd was back in action. However, safety restrictions are in place, and the provincial government’s stay-at-home order is still officially in effect until June 2.

Premier Doug Ford announced last Thursday that some outdoor recreational activities could restart, but that outdoor social gatherings would be limited to five people, including members of different households. Physical distancing is still required.

The new reopening guidelines announced by the province allow residents of long-term care homes to meet outdoors with up to two visitors, including members of different households. They can also meet with two essential caregivers, for a total group size of up to five people.

In its recently released “Roadmap to Reopen,” the Ontario government provided a three-step plan to safely lift public health measures and restrictions on businesses and recreation.

“As a result of the strict public health measures we introduced to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants, we are seeing a steady improvement in our situation as ICU and hospital numbers begin to stabilize,” said Premier Doug Ford in a media statement. “While we must remain conscious of the continued threat the virus poses, with millions of Ontarians having received at least their first dose of vaccine we can now begin the process of a slow and cautious re-opening of the province in full consultation with our public health professionals.”

Step One involves a resumption of outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people, outdoor dining with up to four people per table, and non-essential retail at 15 percent capacity.

Step Two further expands outdoor activities and resumes limited indoor services with small numbers of people where face coverings are worn, and includes indoor religious services at 15 percent capacity.

Step Three expands indoor settings, with restrictions and capacity limits, and includes indoor dining, indoor sports and fitness activities, museums, art galleries, libraries, casinos, and bingo halls.

Based on current trends in key health indicators, including the provincial vaccination rate, the government expects to enter Step One of the Roadmap the week of June 14.

The most current data modelling confirms that COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates are decreasing, and control of the pandemic is improving.

The province has also lifted its pause on the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was temporarily stopped after studies linked it to rare but potentially deadly blood clots. The latest data from research in the United Kingdom suggests the risk of getting a clot is much lower after a second shot, about one in a million. Due to a limited vaccine supply, roll-out programs of second AZ doses have for now been restricted to Toronto, Windsor-Essex, and Kingston, as well as some pharmacies in Hamilton, for people aged 60 to 64.

As far as Health Canada is concerned, AstraZeneca jabs can be given anywhere from four to 12 weeks apart. However, unlike the Pfizer and Moderna shots (which are mRNA vaccines), AstraZeneca a viral vector vaccine, and research data suggests that for these doses, immunity continues to builds after the first shot. Waiting for 12 weeks seems to provide the strongest protection.

There is some urgency to get the AZ vaccine into arms. Ontario Health has approximately 45,000 doses of AstraZenaca that expire at the end of the month, and the province doesn’t want to see the supply wasted.

By getting the second dose at three or four months as is currently scheduled, we will actually be better off over the long term

Niagara’s Acting Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, said in a news conference last week that the latest research is showing that delaying the second dose seems to increase vaccine effectiveness.

“If you’re in a high-risk situation, working in a hospital with COVID patients, maybe it does make sense to get that earlier second dose,” he advised, but for those not in a high-risk group. “By getting the second dose at three or four months as is currently scheduled, we will actually be better off over the long term.”

Appearing on a Zoom session May 18, moderated by Niagara Chamber of Commerce CEO Mishka Balsom, Hirji said that vaccine uptake is currently around 55 percent in Ontario adults. “If we reopen [too soon] we’re going to see a surge of cases—55 percent vaccination isn’t quite high enough to protect us. But if we get up to 75 percent of adults vaccinated, we actually see that that there is no real significant bounce, and we stay well within what our hospitals are able to sustain.”

Hirji suggested that it will likely be late September when the 75 percent two-dose vaccination threshold is reached, a point where a sense of normalcy will return to indoor activities, family gatherings, and relatively unrestricted operation of businesses, restaurants, colleges and universities.

“I’m a little less sure that [in September] we’re going to be filling up stadiums, doing really large groups. I think that might be a little bit more delayed,” he said.

Niagara Region Public Health has announced additional COVID-19 vaccination clinics, including:

MacBain Community Centre in Niagara Falls (May 31), West Lincoln Community Centre (June 6-8), and Meridian Community Centre in Pelham (June 9-13).

Individuals 18 years old or older are now eligible to book an appointment via the provincial booking portal at Ontario.ca/bookvaccine or by calling the provincial booking system at 1-833-943-3900.

Appointments are also available at pharmacies that are providing vaccinations (currently using Moderna or Pfizer). A directory is available at: covid-19.ontario.ca/vaccine-locations.

The most up-to-date information about COVID-19 and Niagara Public Health vaccination efforts can be found at www.niagararegion.ca/health/covid-19/vaccination/