Hamilton health official says ‘no need to panic’ as implications of new COVID-19 variant not clear

Ontario changed COVID testing and isolation strategies for the general public the same day the province recorded record daily case numbers. Global News

Hamilton’s director of epidemiology says there’s “no need to panic” with a new COVID-19 variant and a public health investigation into two Hamilton residents that just returned from what’s considered the epicentre of the new version of the virus.

COVID operations chief Michelle Baird says it’s still too early to tell what the implications are of the Omicron variant – the fifth and latest mutation designated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Read more: Omicron variant: WHO expects more information on transmission ‘within days’

“At this point, we’re just following the direction of the province and trying to understand what that science is,” Baird told 900 CHML’s Good Morning Hamilton.

“Certainly when we know more, we’ll see at that point what needs to happen.”

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The WHO has previously warned Omicron poses a “very high” risk of infections but has not yet determined its potential impact. It’s expected the agency will have more data on whether it’s more transmissible than other variants within the next few days.

“The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors,” the WHO said in its update on Sunday.

“It is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta.”

Hamilton public health is still awaiting the results of genome sequencing from the two infected local residents to see if it’s the new variant.

Baird says there’s no definitive connection to Omicron except for the fact they returned with a COVID infection from a region with high case rates with the variant.

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“So I can’t speak specifically to details of individual cases, but I’ll say that they are both isolating and all of their contacts are isolating as well,” said Baird.

As of Tuesday, Canada had confirmed seven cases of Omicron: four in Ontario and one each in Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia.

The Canadian government is also asking National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) to quickly provide the latest directives on the use of boosters in the context of the new Omicron variant.

So far, NACI has recommended booster shots for seniors, front-line health-care workers, long-term care residents and other high-risk groups.

Three more African nations were added to Canada’s travel ban list on Tuesday – Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt.

It brings the total to ten including the seven barred on Friday: South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.

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Read more: Omicron variant: Canada expands travel ban, seeks booster guidance

Canadians and permanent residents – as well as all those who have the right to return to Canada – who have transited through these countries over the past two weeks, will have to quarantine, be tested at the airport, and await their test results before exiting quarantine.

Baird says with the prospect of the variant potentially being in Hamilton, residents should still follow public health guidelines and only get tested if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID.

“So at this point in time, we’re not encouraging more testing. We are, of course, encouraging anyone to be tested if you are feeling unwell,” Baird said.

“Continue the same measures with respect to wearing your mask, physically distancing where possible and following those same good public health measures that people have been doing for the past 18 months.”

Hamilton reports 33 new COVID-19 cases, 3 new outbreaks

Hamilton public health reported 33 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday which is above the average number of cases seen over the past seven days.

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With the day over day spike, the city’s seven-day average case rate now stands at 24 – up from the 21 reported on Tuesday.

The city had an overall average case rate of 19 per day for all of November, slightly lower than the average 22 cases per day reported for the month of October.

Active cases are up day over day to 178 compared to the 159 reported on Tuesday.

Read more: Ontario reports 780 new COVID-19 cases, 5 more deaths

More than 70 per cent of all active cases are in people under the age of 50, while 39 per cent are under 30.

The city’s per cent positivity rate – representing the number of tests returning positive from labs – dropped slightly week over week to 2.2 per cent from 2.4 per cent. The number is still lower than the provincial average of 3.1 per cent reported on Wednesday.

The city revealed three new school outbreaks bringing the total number of active surges in educational institutions to nine as of Dec. 1.

Thirty-nine of the city’s 48 total cases connected with 12 ongoing outbreaks are from schools.

The largest is at St. Gabriel Catholic Elementary School, which has 14 total cases  — one among staff and 13 among students.

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Read more: U.S. reports first case of Omicron variant as officials examine travel rules

In the last 14 days, both public boards combined have reported 66 cases, with 51 among students.

Hospitals in Hamilton are reporting a total of 15 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday, one more than the 14 reported on Tuesday.

Both St. Joe’s and Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) are averaging less than one new hospital admission each day.

Over 83.4% of eligible Hamiltonians 12-plus fully vaccinated

Over the last week, Hamilton’s health partners have administered close to 15,000 vaccine doses, with Friday recording the largest intake over the week — 2,856 shots.

With a COVID-19 vaccine becoming available to kids aged five through 11, the city saw an 82.8 per cent increase in doses administered week over week.

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Over the last seven days, the city put 14,867 shots into arms, close to 6,700 more than Nov. 17 through Nov. 23.

November’s average shots per day, 1,239, surpassed the number of shots administered per day in all of October by just under 300 doses.

Public health estimates that about 17 per cent of the city’s 42,000 children, eligible for a shot, have had or are scheduled for a dose in the next 14 days.

Read more: Omicron COVID-19 variant poses ‘very high’ global risk, WHO warns

As of Sunday, 83.4 per cent of eligible Hamiltonians over the age of 12 have been fully vaccinated while 86.3 per cent have had at least a single dose. The city is still behind the provincial average, which has 86.3 per cent fully vaccinated and 90 with at least one vaccine dose.

Residents aged 70 to 84 have reached the Ministry of Health’s target of 90 per cent first and second dose coverage. Meanwhile, Hamiltonians aged 25 to 29 represent the lowest vaccination rates of those eligible in the community at just over 73.4 per cent fully vaccinated.

Hamilton is behind 31 other public health units in the percentage of two-dose vaccinations.

— with files from Saba Abiz, Rachael D’Amore, Eric Stober and David Lao

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