Hirji warns that targeted restrictions may be necessary to avoid Covid resurgence in Niagara

Niagara Region added 24 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, Nov. 26, and had an active case total of 177 (including 11 in Pelham). Do these numbers represent a tipping point of uncontrolled rise in infections?

“I wouldn’t say we’re at a tipping point, but I do think it’s a relatively precarious situation,” said Niagara Region’s Acting Medical Officer of Health, Mustafa Hirji. “We’ve seen in other countries, as well as an Alberta and Saskatchewan, that if you pull back on your preventive measures, you will see a spike in cases. And I think we are at risk of that if we’re not careful. We need to think seriously about bringing back a few targeted restrictions to make sure we get through the Christmas period and the winter, without an increase in infection levels.”

Hirji said that packed sports stadiums in the U.S. this fall have been responsible for many infections.

Dr. Mustafa Hirji. SUPPLIED

“It’s should be no surprise that Covid-19 infection rates in the States are over ten times higher than here in Canada,” he said. “Big crowds attending the Toronto Maple Leafs games, that does make me a little bit nervous. I haven’t seen our local Meridian Centre in St. Catharines linked to any spread of infection, due to the safety protocols in place. Making sure we’re enforcing people wearing masks and social distancing when they’re in those facilities is very important.”

During competition, athletes are working hard, which means they are breathing heavily and are at risk of spreading airborne viruses, said Hirji.

“They are usually not wearing a mask because it can be a kind of obstruction, and that, along with crowded team change rooms, can lead to the spread of infection. Whenever you have a lot of people in close contact, that’s where infection can spread.”

Hirji is not advocating that countries go into full lockdown.

“The vaccines have been good enough that we’ve gotten past that,” he said. “But targeted lockdowns are useful. In Austria right now, if you’re unvaccinated, you’re in lockdown. If you’re vaccinated, it’s business as usual. Other countries like Denmark, Norway, and the United Kingdom are bringing back some targeted restrictions in society.”

A recent orchestrated letter-writing campaign in Niagara, aimed at discrediting Hirji for his handling of the pandemic, and the economic hardship caused by social restrictions, didn’t ruffle him.

“My responsibility is to protect the people of Niagara from Covid-19, and all other health threats,” he said. “At the end of the day, I have to make decisions based on the best science available. Otherwise, I’m putting people’s lives pointlessly at risk. And I would also push back on the idea that targeted restrictions are hurting the economy. Throughout this pandemic, the economies of countries that have better-managed Covid-19 have fared the best. Here in Canada in recent months, Canada’s actually been hitting some new highs in terms of economic growth, and we’re now back to pre-pandemic levels in terms of job participation.”

Health Canada has recently approved the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine for children aged five to 11. Previously, only those aged 12 and up were eligible. The vaccine will require two doses of 10 micrograms each, about one-third of the dose for adults. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) is recommending the two doses be spaced eight weeks apart. Canada has ordered 2.9 million doses, enough to provide first jabs for all eligible children in the country.

Hirji is pleased to see this development, given that “this age group currently has by far the highest rate of Covid-19 infection in Niagara, and the vaccine will provide them with much-needed protection.”