Ready for action: gym space at Pelham's community centre set up for Covid-19 jabs in April 2021. SUPPLIED

But young children entering school this fall are at elevated risk

Niagara’s Acting Medical Officer of Health Dr. Mustafa Hirji is certain the seventh wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is upon us. The difference between this wave and the previous ones, however, is it most likely won’t require the same drastic measures to stem the spread.

Speaking to the Voice last week, Hirji confirmed that the trends in wastewater analysis, infection rate and hospitalization have been on the rise in recent weeks. And in the ten days leading up to the telephone interview, seven people had died in Niagara from Covid-19.

“We are perhaps now seeing some signs that the number of infections has stopped rising,” Hirji said. “My hope is that we are getting to a peak and that we’re going to start to go down, which would mean we are about halfway through this wave. We’re not yet at that stage. There is also the chance that it stays at a high level, or increases again.”

Hirji urges everyone to remember the pandemic is not over. He recommends that vaccinations should be up-to-date with all three doses, and encourages people to wear masks indoors as well as when in larger crowds outdoors.

Dr. Mustafa Hirji. SUPPLIED

And if you’re sick, do a rapid test to find out if it is indeed Covid-19, and stay home if it is.

The summer has brought about large crowds gathering together at events such as Pelham Summerfest, St. Catharines Rotary Ribfest, and Canal Days in Port Colborne. Hirji isn’t overly concerned with the possible spread of the virus under those circumstances, being that the events are outdoors.

“The ability of the virus to spread outdoors is actually greatly reduced. If we’re going to be doing activities, it’s great that they are outdoors. If you are going to be in really close quarters with a bunch of people, though, I really do think it is better to be wearing a mask.”

Hirji stressed that where vaccinations are concerned, three doses is what is needed.

“With the Omicron variant, you need to have three doses to have proper protection against the virus,” he said. “The great thing about the vaccine is no matter where you are going, no matter what you are doing, it’s always there to protect you against the virus.”

In Niagara, just shy of two-thirds of adults have been vaccinated with the third shot, while the rate for the first two doses was well over 90 percent.

“It’s not been as high as our first two doses,” said Dr. Hirji. “But in the last couple of weeks we have seen a bit of an uptake. That might be because people are hearing about the seventh wave and recognizing the risk. There’s still a long way to go.”

Hirji believes that some strong messaging from both the provincial and federal governments would have a great effect on the numbers for the third dose.

“Last year there was a lot of push by the province and the federal government to get the two doses,” he said. “Vaccine policies and requirements pushed those expectations. Lately, there’s been almost radio silence from both the province and the federal government. If they were to speak much more strongly about this, that would push people to start getting that third dose.”

He added that there has been a modest number of people opting for a fourth dose of the vaccine. Recent numbers have shown a seven to ten percent increase in the 60-plus age group getting the second booster, and about a three to five percent increase in younger age groups.

“That fourth shot really gives a much smaller benefit than the first three,” Hirji stated. “If you are elderly, or immunocompromised, it’s definitely going to have much more benefit. It increases your immunity in the short term, but not so much in the long term.”

He suggests that the decision on whether or not to get the fourth shot is largely a circumstantial one. For many, he feels the best strategy may be to wait until the fall to make the decision.

We know, too, that there will be some Omicron-specific vaccines coming out in the next few months, and you may want to get that specific immunity when you do get that fourth shot

“The fall and winter are when this virus is at its prime,” he said. “You may want that little extra immunity when we’re going into the highest risk period. We know, too, that there will be some Omicron-specific vaccines coming out in the next few months, and you may want to get that specific immunity when you do get that fourth shot.”

Outbreaks continue to plague long-term care homes across Niagara. It’s a situation that Niagara’s lead doctor says never really stopped, and has picked up in the last few months, but it’s not as bad as it was 18 months ago.

“Vaccines have made a huge difference,” he said. “For the most part, people in long-term care and retirement homes have four or five doses of the vaccine. It’s giving them really good protection, so that when these outbreaks do hit, it’s not hitting everyone in the home. It’s a relatively small number, and for the most part those that do get sick are not getting severely ill. They are recovering without having to go to the hospital.”

“It’s important that all of us are doing our part,” added Hirji, “because when we limit the spread of infection in the community, it really limits the possibility of infection for our most vulnerable people in these homes.”

Just before the August long weekend, Niagara began offering vaccinations for children younger than five years old. After only a week of these shots being offered, fewer than one percent had been vaccinated.

“I’m hoping that it’s because the launch was around the long weekend,” Hirji posited. “We now have about ten pharmacies starting up with these and we still have to get primary care physicians starting, too. Most parents get their other vaccinations for their kids from their primary care providers, so that will most likely be their preferred method of getting their children vaccinated.”

Though the infection rate for children in this age group has been very low since the beginning of the pandemic, he assumes that there are a number of factors leading to those numbers.

“Schools were closed, sports activities were cancelled,” he said. “I think they were really protected from getting the virus based on that. I don’t think that will be the case anymore. They’ll all be going back into child care, pre-school and junior kindergarten. We’re not going to have masking policies that protect them when they go back. For the first time they’ll be exposed to the virus in a way they haven’t been previously.”

Because of that, he suggests that it’s important for these younger children to get vaccinated, like their older counterparts, who have had an uptake of about 50 percent for the first shot, and 30 percent for the second.

Post-secondary institutions will soon be welcoming students back to campus. Niagara College lifted its mandatory vaccination requirements in April, and Brock University followed suit in June. Dr. Hirji feels that a minimum of three doses is important for all students returning to campus.

“I would be very supportive of them reintroducing vaccine requirements,” he affirmed. “Vaccine requirements really kept the campuses as safe places the past two years. I did some teaching on the Brock campus. People wearing masks, everybody being vaccinated, really meant we saw almost no outbreaks there.”

The seventh wave, he warns, may not be the last, either. He feels for the next couple of years we are likely to experience recurring waves of Covid-19.

“We’re seeing people getting re-infected with the virus,” he said. “Every time you get a new variant it’s like you’re fighting a new virus. That is going to lead to people getting re-infections. Long term, we will see repeated infections and all the disruptions that come with that, stress on the hospitals, chaos at our airports.”

A more sustainable way of managing the pandemic going forward is the key.

“We don’t need to be doing things at the same intensity as we have been doing. We have a lot of the vaccine out there, we have treatments. We don’t need to be shutting down businesses or having capacity limits. But we also don’t need to be doing zero. We need to focus on improving our ventilation systems, filtration of our HVAC systems to clean our air of the virus in public places. And we need to look at making paid sick days permanent so people stay home when they’re sick.”