Niagara’s acting medical officer of health says convincing the region’s young to get vaccinated is key to opening up further, keeping hospitalizations low and avoiding a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Mustafa Hirji said there is “room for improvement” with Niagara’s vaccination program when it comes to younger age groups that are still coming down with infections and driving overall cases.
“So probably that is going to be the area where we are really going to make or break our potential to avoid a fourth wave and really bring COVID-19 in the community under control is really getting a vaccination rate up in the 18 to 29 age,” Hirji said.
The top doc called the region’s vaccination story a “mixed bag” with fluctuations in the deliveries of the two main mRNA brands Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
He says local clinics are getting through the process with the interchangeability of the two vaccines.
“The good news is that we are filling up any appointments for vaccines we have pretty much as quickly as we release them,” Hirji said.
He believes part of the issue among youth could be the availability of appointments which lag as much as ten days to two weeks.
“It perhaps is a deterrent to some of those young people,” said Hirji.
“As we get more people vaccinated with the second dose and we shorten that gap, maybe we’ll start to see more uptake among the younger group.”
Just over 57 per cent (over 42,000) of those aged 18 to 29 in Niagara have had a dose of vaccine while about 50 per cent of ages 12 to 17 have had a shot.
In comparison, over 61 per cent of those aged 18 to 29 in Hamilton have had at least one shot, and over 59 per cent aged 12 to 17 have had a vaccine dose.
Hirji says that’s a discussion Niagara’s vaccine community task force will have to have figuring out how to ramp up doses in the age group since he’s not “optimistic” about the current rate at which cases are dropping in the region.
“We’re still declining very slowly here in Niagara, but we’re not seeing quite as much of a decline as other provinces are seeing,” said Hirji.
Niagara reported just eight new COVID-19 cases on Monday with 62 per cent of the region’s 119 active cases among those under 39.
This is significantly lower than just two months ago, when 1,475 active cases were recorded by the health unit on May 1.
Also much lower are hospitalizations, which are half of what they were at the beginning of May when the region reported over 60 per cent of its insensitive care unit (ICU) beds equipped with ventilators were in use.
Niagara’s latest epidemiological data is also reporting a sharp drop in “detected” variants of concern (VOC) which Hirji presumes represent the impact of the Delta variant that has not been easily tracked by Public Health Ontario.
The last summary from the province in late June suggested the impact is in about the 70 to 80 per cent range of all reported new cases in the region.
Hirji expects to see revisions from the province shortly and that likely will bring lower numbers.
“I do think that we are seeing this number probably in the 30 to 50 (per cent) range, and so we probably have close to half of our cases at this point are the Delta variant,” said Hirji.
An optimistic timeline for a ramp up of vaccinations among people under 30 to avoid a fourth wave in Niagara is likely the end of August and perhaps pushing into October.
Until then, the MOH is not convinced the region can sustain a full reopening.
“I think we’re going to have to keep going slow and steady with every opening to make sure we buy ourselves enough time to get those vaccinations out and not have that way before we can get vaccinations,” said Hirji.