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Region's top doctor urges caution in Step 3 as crowds, indoor spaces still present a risk of COVID-19 spread

Region’s top doctor urges people avoid crowds and poorly-ventilated indoor spaces
Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang said she is confident the region can move into Step 3 with the rest of the province if vaccination rates continue rising.

The region’s top doctor is continuing to urge caution as the community enters Step 3 of the province’s reopening plan, warning everyone to avoid crowds and poorly-ventilated indoor spaces.

“We can’t become complacent. We continue to be at risk,” medical officer of health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang told members of the media during Friday’s briefing on the local COVID-19 situation. “We have to work together to safely reopen and stay open.”

The warning comes as the region reports two new outbreaks in summer camp settings and rising positive case counts in the unvaccinated cohort of children under the age of 12.

“If you send a child to camp with symptoms, they can spread COVID-19 to other kids and staff.” 

Anyone who goes to work while not feeling well is putting others at risk, “which hurts everyone,” she added. “If you increase contacts without taking precautions, you can spread COVID-19 across our community.”

Despite the caution, Wang said the region’s COVID-19 Incident rate is at its lowest level since November 2020 and a successful vaccine rollout has pushed first-dose coverage to among the highest in Ontario.

“Case rates, number of active cases, the number of active outbreaks continue to slowly decline,” she said. “Hospitalizations have also started to decrease and remain stable at this time.”

But, she said, with the very high transmissibility and aggressiveness of the Delta variant, the spread is not expected to slow quickly and the region could experience flare ups.

With new cases topping 50,000 in the United Kingdom this week, mostly among the unvaccinated younger population, Wang said that country’s third wave offers a “cautionary tale” for Canada as restrictions ease here. 

“Increasing vaccination rates and continuing public health measures is paramount to our continued success in reopening,” Wang said.

“We can reopen and limit the spread of the Delta variant by diligently following public health guidelines and continue to get vaccinated,” she said. “Avoid enclosed spaces and crowded places. When indoors, ensure the space is well ventilated and continue to wear masks and physically distance. And where possible favour the outdoors for permitted activities.”

As for when children under the age of 12 can hope to get the vaccine, Wang said current trials with the youngest demographic are expected to report findings by the end of September with the hope children could begin getting vaccinated by mid-October or early November.

The province will be assessing how the vaccine rollout for 12 and under might impact school in September, Wang said, adding the education minister has already stated his goal is for school to be as normal as possible.

Wang urges anyone with a vaccination appointment booked for later this summer or fall, to book an earlier date immediately.

Anyone whose first dose was Moderna or Pfizer can get their second dose as early as 28 days later. Anyone who received AstraZeneca as their first dose is already eligible to receive their second dose.

“Don’t delay your second dose,” Wang said. “It’s important that we not let up now. We’ve had great success but we still have a ways to go. Let’s keep moving forward.”

Region of Waterloo CEO Bruce Lauckner praised the community for getting vaccines as soon as possible, with Friday's count exceeding 55 per cent among the eligible population for second doses, and catching up ‘with light speed’ to the rest of the province to first dose at 80 per cent.

He said the vaccine dashboard daily summary provided by the region will now focus on efforts to vaccinate those 12 years of age and older as the region strives to reach its target of having 75 per cent of the eligible population fully vaccinated.

Lauckner said the region’s vaccine supply remains steady as clinics continue to run at maximum capacity. After operating a "hockey hub" model vaccination clinic last week, Bingemans will shift to more drive-thru clinics next week with evening clinics running from 5 to 9 p.m. on July 20-22.

Appointments are required for second doses at those clinics, but walk-ins are welcome for first doses, as they are at all regional clinics.

Targeted mobile clinics and pop ups will focus on communities with lower vaccination rates. 

The region is also expanding support to ParaMed to vaccinate those who are housebound.

“I know people are saying, 'I have an appointment in August, what's the big deal?' Although it may not seem to be a big deal, if we want to be able to keep our businesses open, as Dr. Wang has said, get vaccinated,” Lauckner said.

"There's no reason people who are eligible and able to get to vaccine clinics should delay their appointments to August or September."

Cambridge Memorial Hospital CEO Patrick Gaskin thanked Dr. Wang for her "brave and courageous effort" to hold Waterloo Region back from moving to Step 2.

"It takes courage to do that, and without that the hospital system would have been crushed," he said. "As a result of that, the hospital system is more stabilized at this stage."

Patients who need intensive care support are still moving among the Waterloo region hospitals to manage capacity and to ensure patients are cared for, Gaskin said, adding there are currently 157 COVID related critical care patients in hospitals across the province.

Gaskin emphasized the severity of local hospitalization rates by pointing out how Waterloo region's population represents about five per cent of the population of Ontario, yet 10 per cent of the 157 patients in critical care now are in Waterloo region hospitals.

"I think it speaks to the point that Dr. Wang has raised, of the insidiousness of the Delta variant and the impact it can have, very quickly, on the hospital system."