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COVID-19 in Ontario: While the pandemic future is 'uncertain,' the context around the rise in cases is important

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With Ontairo’s COVID-19 cases on the rise recently, infectious disease experts stress that while the COVID-19 can change quickly, vaccines do impact our response at this point in the pandemic.

“I always try to maintain some level of humility with COVID because things can change very quickly,” Ontario infectious disease specialist, Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, told Yahoo Canada on Friday morning.

Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table
Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table

Data published by the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table on Friday shows that most public health units have seen an increase in cases over the past 14 days, with the highest number of cases per 100,000 residents in Sudbury, Southwestern and Haldimand-Norfolk public health units.

Ontario reported 598 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, down from 642 reported on Thursday.

Dr. Chakrabarti stressed that while Ontarians are seeing a rise in the daily reported COVID-19 cases, the pandemic situation in the province is different now that about 85 per cent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.

“The vaccine doesn't completely prevent infection,” Dr. Chakrabarti stated. "Even if vaccinated you can get infected, but the vast majority of people who are infected, once vaccinated, either have very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all."

“What I think when I see these cases going up is that this is natural, it's happening now because, number one, we're going into the colder season, of course there was stuff that was opened, which is going to be contributing. But we have to also remember that we need context. Where are the cases happening? When cases are happening, if they are vaccinated, are they milder or not mild? What is the hospital situation?”

Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table
Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table

The data from Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table also stresses that "the impact of COVID-19 remains highly inequitable."

"Those with lower income, essential workers, and minority groups are at highest risk,” the information reads.

“Inequalities in COVID-19-related mortality stemmed from differential exposures, and access to and reach of interventions such as testing and isolation.”

Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table
Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table

Hospitalizations and ICU occupancy are stable right now in Ontario, but the Science Advisory Table is cautioning that it is expected that as cases go up, ICU occupancy will increase as well, but the “immediate future is uncertain.”

“A deliberate pause on re-opening is the right decision at this time,” the information from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table reads. “Policies that support wearing masks properly indoors and getting fully vaccinated will be helpful.”

“Vaccination remains the most effective protection against COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and long COVID-19, but there are critical gaps in coverage across communities.”

Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table
Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table

'It's a much safer place than it was a year ago'

When asked about adding restrictions, including a lockdown, if cases continue to rise, Dr. Chakrabarti said that completely locking down would not be a good public health strategy.

“What I've been telling people is that...it's not a given that if you have a certain level of cases you have to lock down,” he said. “The reason we locked down before is because we wanted to slow community transmission so the hospital wasn't overwhelmed with patients.”

“So now, with so much vaccination on the ground, we have much more capacity for there to be cases in the community, because proportionately, there will be less people who will get that sick to be hospitalized.”

For individuals trying to figure out how to navigate this winter season with respect to COVID-19 safety for interactions, Dr. Chakrabarti indicated that it comes down to a personal risk assessment.

"My advice is do what you're comfortable with," he said. "By this time, we know all the things you can do, whether it's masks to ventilation, but if you're in a group where everybody's vaccinated, the risk is probably pretty small." 

"We're afforded this ability this year because it's a much safer place than it was a year ago."

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