Ontario continues to report below 400 new COVID-19 cases for the seventh day in a row, with 270 new cases as of Monday, June 21 — the lowest daily count in more than nine months. The Ministry of Health reported over the weekend that this big decline in case numbers has resulted in a provincial positivity rate of 1.4 per cent.
This relief in cases can be most appreciated within our hospitals, as COVID-19 hospitalizations saw a drop from 378 on Friday to 336 patients being cared for as of Saturday. Of these patients, 335 are in ICUs and 221 are currently requiring a ventilator to assist in breathing.
“Where I work, critically unstable hematology patients requiring ICU admissions for care were having to be triaged in order for them to receive care, sometimes outside of a formal ICU setting due to all the COVID-19 cases we had to take care of,” says Anju Vyas, a pharmacist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
“I’ve never witnessed such an acute demand on an already strained nursing, physician and other allied health care staff resource pool.”
The downtrend of case numbers has allowed us to enjoy some freedoms again, as Stage 1 of reopenings began on June 11. This first stage — afforded to us as 60 per cent of adults received one dose — means we can once again gather outdoors with up to 10 people, visit patios, dine with up to four people per table, and shop at non-essential and essential businesses within 15 and 25 per cent capacity respectively. Additional details on what is currently permitted can be found on Ontario’s COVID-19 website.
Stage 2, set to begin once 70 per cent of adults have received one dose and 20 per cent of Ontario is fully vaccinated, will expand outdoor gatherings to 25 people and indoor ones to five people while patio tables will see an increase to six people.
Non-essential retail capacity will also move up to 25 per cent. Amusement parks, town fairs, water parks, sports leagues, and cinemas will be permitted to open during this stage as well. The government states that each stage will be active for at least 21 days before moving onto the next.
As of Monday, 20 per cent of Ontarians have been fully vaccinated — the mark needed to move to the second stage. The province has also announced that it will be moving up second dose appointments for a number of groups shortly, and by June 28 all adults will have the opportunity to get their second dose.
What remains concerning, however, is the highly transmissible variants currently circulating around the world. Ontario health officials have identified approximately 400 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 variants, the majority of which appear to be the Alpha variant first discovered in the United Kingdom.
“With more and more people starting to get vaccinated, I feel safer than I have in a long time. I am, however, concerned with whether or not the vaccines will be able to protect us against the Delta variant,” says third-year health science student Marc Delado.
The Delta variant, first found in India, also remains at large. Last week, Canada saw a 66 per cent increase in COVID-19 cases attributed to the Delta variant, with case counts totaling just over 2,000 as of Friday, June 18. The Delta hotspot list also has some new additions and now includes Toronto, Peel Region, York Region, Waterloo, Porcupine, Halton Region, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph, Durham, Hamilton and Simcoe Muskoka.
“Recent numbers suggest that two doses of the vaccine are still fairly effective against combatting this variant, however, there is still a clear decline in the effectiveness in comparison to combatting the Alpha variant,” says Swar Shah, a first-year medical student at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
“For example, the Pfizer vaccine has been stated in a recent study to be 92 per cent effective against the Alpha variant, but 79 per cent against the Delta. However, it is undeniable that the progression of vaccination in Canada is comforting, and I would not believe that any additional measures would need to be taken at this time,” says Shah.
While accelerated appointment availability has been offered to these locations, it has unfortunately not been followed up with an increased share of vaccine supply.
The Waterloo Region has been hit particularly hard with the Delta variant, with Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang stating that residents should assume it is the “dominant strain circulating in the region.”
Proxy data for the region has led health officials to believe that 65 per cent of cases between June 6 and 12 were the Delta variant.
“I believe that our hope in controlling the Delta variant lies in not backing off on our current vaccination efforts, including appropriate allocation to existing and upcoming hotspots,” says Vyas.
Ontario and Canada as a whole continue to make solid progress in combatting the pandemic, however, factors like the variants serve as a reminder that it is still far from over. The safest course of action remains following health guidelines such as regularly washing our hands, wearing masks, and maintaining social distance while also staying within the current regulations of Stage 1.