Ready for action: gym space at Pelham's community centre set up for Covid-19 jabs. SUPPLIED

Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Acting Medical Officer of Health and Commissioner for Public Health in the Niagara Region, provided news on Covid-19, vaccination progress, and other health updates on the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce’s weekly Espresso Live! webinar last Thursday.

Hirji prefaced his remarks by providing an overview of the current state of Covid around the globe, and the worrisome pattern of increasing infections which are raising the spectre of a “fourth wave,” which Hiri called “a very real concern.” He noted that the US stock market took a dip last Monday, “that was very much linked to fears about a new surge of Covid-19 cases that they’re experiencing in the US. But the good news is that Niagara is bucking the trend a little bit.”

The highly contagious Delta variant now makes up over 80 percent of new infections in the United States, according to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC). More than half of the U.S. population is not yet fully vaccinated, and the average of new daily cases last week was up 66 percent from the previous week and 145 percent from two weeks prior.

Hirji highlighted that in British Columbia and Alberta, “two provinces that have taken that step of pretty much dropping all coded precautions, with no more masking and no more physical distancing,” infection levels are beginning to increase. “The lesson there is that we need some ongoing restrictions on social interaction, and some additional work to get vaccination rates higher before we can take that step to [full] reopening—but that’s of course not to say we can’t partially reopen.”

Ontario infection numbers have not spiked, but Hirji cautioned that “thousands of [modeling] simulations being run actually show us exceeding our hospital capacity, so right now we’re not at a stage where we could fully reopen and not see our hospital sector possibly overwhelmed.”

He said that, “once we get to that 75 percent [vaccination rate] here, and everybody has had two doses, we’ll be able to fully reopen, and really get back to something much closer to normal.”

Right now we’re not at a stage where we could fully reopen and not see our hospital sector possibly overwhelmed

Hirji said that vaccination statistics from early July indicated that close to 8000 doses a day were being administered in Niagara, “although unfortunately that has tapered off a little bit of late.”

Hirji said that there is “a big group out there who I think are just a bit complacent about getting the vaccine, just not willing to do the work to book an appointment, it’s not top of mind, because they have a lot of other stuff going in their life. That’s the group that we’re really hoping will get us well past 75 percent.”

The importance of continuing to wear a face mask was underscored by Hirji, since it protects the public from the spread of respiratory droplets and aerosols that are exhaled, and is especially important in the workplace.

“Despite being an annoyance, I think that’s one of the measures that we should really keep up as long as possible, because it has a low economic cost, and I think it makes a difference,” he said.

Hirji noted that most businesses are doing a good job of invoking protective measures such as plexiglass barriers, and insisting on face masks and social distancing. However, he said that when employees “go into the break room, that’s when some of these things fall apart. People are more likely to sit closely together, interact socially, and sip coffee or have a snack while not wearing a mask—and that’s probably what’s driving some of these workplace outbreaks.”

Addressing a question about the possibility of achieving “herd immunity,” Hirji responded that “current estimates I’m seeing for herd immunity are actually in the high 90 percent of people believe vaccinated, which right now isn’t even doable, given that 11 percent of the population is under the age of 12 and can’t be vaccinated. What I’m really focused on is achieving 75 percent who are fully dosed.”