Mass COVID vaccination clinics planned in Simcoe Muskoka as variants continue to be a concern

Region's top doc says province needs to be fully prepared to put back in place a stay-at-home order

There were positives and negatives on the COVID-19 front to be pulled from Tuesday’s media briefing by Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for Simcoe Muskoka.

Gardner said there were 207 infections during the week of Feb. 9, which is a 58 per cent reduction since the beginning of January, when the peak number in a week was 494.

The positivity rate is down to 1.9 per cent from 2.2, which Gardner said is a good thing, as it reveals how prevalent the virus is in the community and how many people are getting tested.

Barrie is down to 48 cases per 100,000 population per week, which is one third lower than the previous week, and the third consecutive week with a large decrease in the weekly incidents among Barrie residents.

“We have no municipality in Simcoe-Muskoka now with more than 100 cases per 100,000 population,” Gardner said.

The red flag for Gardner continues to be the number of variant cases in our region, all of which have been identified as B117, which was first seen in the U.K.

“We have had 153 individuals who have tested positive for the B117 variant, the U.K. variant. This is up 133 from a week ago,” said Gardner. “And we have 131 individuals who have screened positive for a mutation that is likely to be shown to be a variant such as the U.K. variant, which is up from 64 a week ago.”

“It’s important to know we have many more individuals who are part of outbreaks where the U.K. variant has been identified. In those situations, although we don’t get test results of all of those cases, I consider that they are very likely, all of these COVID cases associated with those outbreaks, are the U.K. variant. So, we actually have more cases that have not been tested that are probably the U.K. variant.”

He said there are three institutional outbreaks that have the B117 variant and another four institutions that have tested positive for some kind of variant.

Of the seven, six are at long-term care facilities or retirement homes, and the other variant outbreak is at Waypoint Centre for Mental Health in Penetanguishene.

The most prominent outbreak has been at Roberta Place long-term care in Barrie, which the health unit is close to declaring over. There have been 87 positive test results for B117, up two cases from a week ago, and there are 20 other individuals who have tested positive for some kind of mutations. The outbreak has killed a total of 70 residents. Dozens of staff members have also tested positive for COVID-19, as well as several redeployed staff and essential caregivers, and there has been one death among those essential caregivers.

There have also been positive tests for B117, or an undetermined variant, at an apartment complex and several businesses in Simcoe County, and for the first time, a variant of concern has cropped up in Muskoka.

With the stay-at-home order lifted and Simcoe-Muskoka in the red zone, Gardner pressed again for the public to only go out for essentials, such as groceries, work, school, medical appointments, to seek medical care, and for physical exercise.

Gardner made it clear last week he would have preferred if the province had not lifted the stay-at-home order because of the variant outbreaks. He repeated those concerns at the media briefing on Tuesday afternoon.

“Modelling done by the science table for the province for COVID predicts the new variants will continue,” said Gardner.

He said the variants will become more prevalent in March than the standard COVID variant.

“I would advise the province they be full prepared to put back in place a stay-at-home order and a shutdown with the onset of a third wave, if not sooner.”

With more doses of vaccine expected next month, Gardner revealed the health unit and its partners have been planning for mass community vaccination immunization clinics throughout Simcoe Muskoka, and he hopes to have them online in March in six areas of the region.

“Between now and March we certainly want to continue vaccinating in our retirement homes and continue vaccinating for the second dose for those that are in long-term care, and also the staff of long-term care facilities, retirement homes, hospitals and essential caregivers for the retirement homes and long-term care facilities,” Gardner explained.

He said they are also interested in moving on to other priority groups such as paramedics, those who work in assessment centres and First Nations communities.

Vaccinating people in the community over the age of 80 is something the health unit hopes to begin in March as that age group is at the highest risk for severe infection and death. How to communicate that information and book those individuals is still being ironed out, but Gardner said primary care providers may assist with the vaccinations. There are about 30,000 people in Simcoe Muskoka who are 80 years of age or older.

What type of facilities would be used for mass vaccination clinics has not been determined. Gardner said there is consultation with municipalities and he hopes details to the public can be released soon after February 22nd, if not before.

To date, 28,000 individuals have been vaccinated in Simcoe Muskoka, up 6,000 from last week, and 92 per cent of long-term care residents are now immunized. As well, 69 per cent of residents in retirement homes have been immunized, and 5,000 others in priority groups such as long-term care and retirement home staff and essential caregivers have received their first dose, and of those, over 3,000 have received a second dose. There are about 5,400 healthcare workers in hospitals and alternative level of care that have been vaccinated, and 5,000 individuals in that group have received a second dose.