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COVID-19: Hamilton ‘reviewing’ implications of province’s decision to lift mask mandate

Hamilton's mayor says the city is "reviewing" the province's decision to lift a face covering mandate on Mar. 21. The city still has it's own bylaw in place for enclosed public spaces which was implemented in the summer of 2020. Don Mitchell / Global News

Hamilton’s mayor says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the province’s move to ease COVID-19 public health measures across Ontario in the weeks ahead, including the nixing of an indoor face coverings mandate.

Fred Eisenberger told Global News city staff are reviewing Wednesday’s announcement from the province’s chief medical officer of health — setting a March 21 date for removing mandatory masking requirements.

“I fully trust that our provincial and local medical officers of health’s advice regarding masking is data-driven and will account for varying situations and local conditions,” Eisenberger said.

Read more: Ontario lifts mask mandate in most settings March 21, all directives to drop by April 27

“After two years, we have developed good tools and habits to protect ourselves, and so I am cautiously optimistic about the province’s planned easing of public health measures across Ontario in the weeks ahead.”

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The city currently has it’s own mask rules for enclosed public spaces under a bylaw implemented in the summer of 2020 which gave officers powers to fine individuals not dawning a face covering in public spaces.

During a COVID briefing in late February, Eisenberger hinted the bylaws requiring face coverings indoors would likely remain for some time despite the province reviewing mandates.

Hamilton’s medical officer of health does have the ability to impose additional restrictions above what is set by the province, however Premier Doug Ford told reporters during a stop in Brantford on Wednesday that would have to go before Ontario’s chief medical officer first.

Masks will no longer be required in most social settings such as restaurants, gyms, large event spaces and even schools, according to public health Ontario’s guidelines.

However, the mask mandate will remain in place for higher-risk settings such as transit, long-term care, retirement homes, hospitals, shelters, jails and congregate care and living settings.

Requirements in all remaining settings, as well as any other directives and orders, are expected to be  dropped on April 27.

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The director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table told Global News that with more measures set to be removed on the 21st, keeping the inevitable daily number of COVID infections “steady” will be key for any future success.

Dr. Peter Juni says current tracking via wastewater testing and hospitalization data suggests Ontario has an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 daily infections. He also believes about 3.5 to 4.4 million of Ontario’s 14.5 million residents have been infected with the Omicron variant since its arrival.

“This adds to the short term protection and the role of immunity. This all helps, but … how much can we afford now?” Juni said.

Read more: COVID-19: B.C. to drop mask mandate Friday for indoor public spaces, vaccine card in April

“This always is a balance of power between immunity and contacts. Contact that was okay before with a mask might not be that low risk anymore once the mask is lifted.”

Timothy Sly, epidemiologist and professor emeritus with Ryerson University, suggests the province should have held off another 10 to 15 days, and lift face covering rules in April after the March Break.

“If there ever was an opportunity for a lot of cross-pollination,” Sly told 900 CHML’s Hamilton Today.

“I think we should wait … and see what the figures look like then.”

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University of Toronto pediatric infectious diseases specialist Dr. Anna Banerji concurs with that assessment, suggesting mask mandates going down, especially for children after March Break, increases the risk of transmission.

Read more: Lecce defends end date for Ontario school mask mandate amid calls for more time

“I think that during March Break that kids will or families will be mingling more, and a lot of them will be traveling,” said Banerji.

“You don’t want a whole bunch of children to be coming back into school without masks.”

Ontario’s education minister Stephen Lecce defended the move Thursday, stating the province is following a handful of other Canadian jurisdictions, including Saskatchewan and Alberta, that have already lifted mask mandates.

“I would submit, based on what we know today, we’re actually one of the most cautious provinces,” he said at the provincial legislature, saying Ontario is following the “clear advice” of its chief medical officer of health.

Less than 50 COVID patients in Hamilton hospitals

Hamilton’s COVID infection indicators continued to decline month over month with the city’s hospitals reporting 100 fewer patients with the affliction compared to 28 days ago.

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As of Thursday, the two networks reported 47 COVID patients with only six requiring a stay at an intensive care unit (ICU). On Feb. 10, Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) and St, Joe’s had a combined 152 COVID admissions with 19 in ICUs.

During a HHS town hall on Thursday, epidemiologist Dr. Dominik Mertz said admissions in the city have dropped around 80 per cent compared to January, putting Hamilton on par with provincial averages.

“We’ve been lagging behind three or four weeks ago, but since dropped faster than the provincial average and … similarly now with the rest of the province at this point,” Mertz said.

Overall occupancy rates in the city’s hospitals are still higher than the ideal 90 per cent threshold, with HHS reporting over 100-per cent use at both the Juravinski and Hamilton General while St. Joe’s is at 98 per cent.

On Thursday, HHS revealed 239 of 312 staff redeployed for COVID services will be returning to their regular assignments this month.

The network’s West End Urgent Care Clinic on Main Street East is set to reopen on March 24th, just over 10 weeks after closing in mid-January.

Ontario is reporting 742 people in hospital with COVID on Thursday, with 244 in intensive care units.

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This is down by nine hospitalizations but an increase of three in ICUs since the previous day. Last Thursday, there were 834 hospitalizations with 267 in ICU.

Read more: U.S. to extend requirements for travellers to wear masks through April 18

Hamilton hospital staff isolating for COVID-19 has also dropped somewhat since Feb. 10, with just 242 off work as of Thursday.

Combined, the hospitals reported just under 300 affected workers 28 days ago.

Hamilton public health reported a weekly case positivity rate of 11.6 per cent on Thursday, generally on par with the province’s 11.2 per cent as of March 10.

The city had a rate of 14.1 a month ago.

Another positive sign for Hamilton is the significant decline in confirmed institutional outbreaks across the city over the last 28 days, dropping from the 34 reported on Feb. 10 to just four as of Thursday.

There are five surges that are suspect and not yet confirmed outbreaks by public health.

In all there are 29 cases related to the city’s outbreak data with 12 tied to two support houses and nine cases in homes with seniors.

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On this date in February, the city said there were over 1,000 cases connected with 34 outbreaks at the time.

There have been 24 more COVID-related deaths in Hamilton since Feb. 10, bringing the pandemic total to 529 as of Thursday.

Fourteen of the deceased were people over the age of 80, while eight were in their 70s, according to city data.

Close to 88 per cent of Hamiltonians 12-plus fully vaccinated

More than 1.2 million first doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Hamilton as of Thursday, with about 468,000 second doses and 287,000 third shots given out as of Wednesday.

Month over month, the city’s average daily vaccination rate declined by about 45 per cent, with first nine days of March checking in at about 522 per doses per day.

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In February, the average was 945, 79 per cent lower that the daily average of 4,532 doses per day in January.

Close to 88 per cent of Hamiltonians aged 12 and older have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. First-dose coverage stands at 90.3 per cent. Third-dose immunization is at 53.1 per cent.

Read more: COVID-19 vaccine and booster tracker: How many Canadians are vaccinated?

The city is still slightly behind the provincial average in first-dose vaccinations at 92.7 per cent. Second doses in Ontario are at 90.7 per cent, with third doses at 54.6 per cent.

Fifty-two per cent of children aged five to 11 have had at least one dose of a vaccine in the city, with second doses at just over 33 per cent. The numbers are on par with the provincial rates in that age group, which stand at 55 per cent and 29.7 per cent, respectively.

Youth between 12 and 17 represents the age group with the second-lowest of the vaccination rates, according to city data. Just over 86 per cent have had a single dose, 82 per cent have had a second shot and just 10 per cent have had a third.

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