Dr. Piotr Oglaza, medical officer of health for the region, told reporters in a press briefing Wednesday that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has officially arrived in the Kingston area.
The case was first active Nov. 28, but genome sequencing came back Wednesday and confirmed the variant of concern. So far, Oglaza says only one case has been detected, and would not share any details about the age or gender of the person affected.
The health unit said the person who tested positive does not have any travel history, but contact tracers are investigating the mode of transmission.
Oglaza said out of an abundance of caution, health guidelines will change to have high-risk close contacts of someone with the Omicron variant self-isolate even if they are vaccinated.
He also said that with cases continuing to skyrocket regionally, further restrictions were coming to KFL&A this week. These will not come in the form of any lockdown measures.
This comes as the health unit reported 101 new cases on Wednesday alone, with two more deaths, bringing the death toll to 14.
“I do not have the authority to require a stay-at-home order. This is something that’s been done by the province based on other legislation, and this is not something that’s within my power as a medical officer of health to impose such drastic level of measures in this area,” he said.
The requirements are apparently still going through legal review, and will come in the form of a “letter of instruction.”
The new measures will include: added screening of staff and customers in some settings, strengthening language and requirements around wearing masks indoors and eliminating the opportunities for mixing and mingling without masks in indoor places except when eating or drinking.
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He said these measures are meant to target those who continue to attend social settings while symptomatic.
Oglaza admitted that the decision by the province to leave public health measures up to local health units has been an issue, especially as the KFL&A region experiences such dramatic spikes in cases.
“It is challenging to draft and introduce these complex legal measures that are intended for a particular area. It was much easier in the previous waves where we have that work done centrally,” he said.
But he added that he has received support from the Ministry of Health and Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, to draft more targeted measures that will hopefully address the specific modes of transmission being seen in the community.
He maintains spread is happening mostly in private household settings, rather than in settings controlled by vaccine and mask mandates, like restaurants.
He argued that it is the “mixing and mingling” in private settings that leads to higher transmission than, say, a person sitting across from another person at a restaurant. He’s hoping that this week’s new restrictions will clamp down on the kind of behaviour reportedly causing the local spread.
Still, Oglaza could not answer whether his previous Section 22 order limiting social gatherings to 10 people has been effective so far and did not commit to decreasing that number. He said instead, the health unit is pivoting further restrictions to limit the movement of symptomatic individuals.
“That’s where the active screening is going to come into play, and we will be also distributing the symptom lists and tools for organizations, businesses to use to do that active screening,” he said.
Despite these measures, KFL&A has become one of the province’s public health regions with the highest case rates, with more than 170 cases detected per 100,000 people as of Wednesday.
Local hospitals are also feeling the pinch, with Kingston Health Sciences Centre announcing that it was sending three intensive care unit patients to other hospitals due to capacity issues. Oglaza agreed that hospital capacity was “under stress.”
He noted that KFL&A is going through a “concerning trend” and that Kingston hospitals have some of the highest ICU COVID-19 admissions in the province.
“Our overall provincial capacity in terms of ICU, I’ve looked at these graphs and numbers looks in very good shape. So it’s unclear why we are seeing this in KFLA region.”
As of Wednesday, 30 people are hospitalized locally with COVID-19, 12 of whom are in ICUs, with nine on ventilators.