In April 2020, Pelham's Fire Chief, Bob Lymburner shows Mayor Marvin Junkin the likely timeline for a second and subsequent waves of COVID-19 infection over the following 12-18 months. DAVE BURKET

I absolutely would be wearing a mask outdoors if I’m in a crowd like [Summerfest]”

Think the pandemic is over? Nothing but blue skies and rainbows ahead?

Not so fast.

“We are unfortunately seeing infections increase, along with hospitalizations, both across the province and here in Niagara,” said Dr. Mustafa Hirj, the Region’s Acting Medical Officer of Health.

“The new Omicron subvariant, BA.5, seems to be prevalent, the same virus that is driving new waves in western Europe right now.”

Dr. Mustafa Hirji. SUPPLIED

The federal government’s Covid-19 Immunity Task Force has estimated that some 55 percent of Canadians have been infected with the virus since the pandemic began, and that 17.5 million contracted Covid (primarily the Omicron strain) in the five-month period from December 15, 2021 to May 15, 2022.

In terms of vigilance and measures to combat the latest surge, Hirji has three recommendations for local residents.

“Number one, absolutely, is making sure you have three doses of vaccine. In Niagara, only 62 percent of adults that have had three doses. Number two would be wearing masks in indoor spaces, a behaviour that has really dropped off over the last several weeks. And then the final part to emphasize is all about protecting those around you. When you’re sick, stay home, isolate from others, and don’t spread the infection.”

Summer means more group gatherings and outdoor events (hello, Summerfest) and Hirji acknowledges that it will be more difficult to socially distance. But young partiers should be aware.

“Unfortunately, it is young people who have been disproportionately affected by the latest surge of infections, in large part because they have not been vaccinated at the same rate as the older population.”

As of early July, about half the population of Niagara has had three doses of vaccine, while some 90 percent of those age 80+ have had three jabs. Anyone over age 60 is currently eligible for a fourth (second booster) dose as well.

As to how the currently available vaccines will stave off the latest mutation of Omicron, Hirji is candid.

“We really don’t know,” he said. “It looks like the vaccines are perhaps going to be a little less effective, at least in terms of preventing infection. The vaccines are always playing catch-up to the current strain. When we develop a vaccine, we go through a period of clinical trials to provide data, which needs to be reviewed to get approved and licensed. A virus just mutates and doesn’t need to go through any of that testing. But overall, the vaccines are doing very well at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths.”

Hirji referenced long-term care homes in Ontario, which had a high rate of infections and deaths early in the pandemic. Today, that trend has been reversed, given that the vaccination rate of vulnerable seniors in these facilities is very high, with most having had four or even five doses of vaccine (a fifth jab is available for those with compromised immune systems).

“For people with weakened immune systems, vaccination really is making a difference,” said Hirji. “Even if you do get a minor illness, you’re much less likely to spread it on to others. The big thing I really want to emphasize is that this pandemic is not over. These waves of infection are going to keep coming until, as a society, we put in place more long-term measures that are going to actually minimize the risk of infection—improved indoor ventilation, paid sick days, changing our holiday calendars. These adjustments will minimize the risks that can trigger big spikes of infection.”

And what of the crowds of revellers at the fast-approaching Summerfest?

“I absolutely would be wearing a mask outdoors if I’m in a crowd like that. For sure,” said Hirji. “And I’m also personally wearing a mask indoors in grocery stores and the like, to protect myself and, just as importantly, protect vulnerable people who might be around me.”

Active cases of the coronavirus in the region total 392, as reported on Niagara Health’s website last Thursday, which is almost certain a significant undercount, given the wide prevalance now of home testing. The pandemic has officially claimed 566 lives in Niagara since it began.