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SMDHU taking additional measures to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and Omicron

Local medical officer of health says "We are seeing community transmission of the Omicron variant in Simcoe Muskoka"

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) announced on Wednesday it is taking further action to help prevent the spread of COVID 19.

In a news release, the SMDHU said this was in response to the highly transmissible Omicron variant taking hold in Ontario “with modeling projections showing an alarming spread in the population, and as Simcoe Muskoka continues to see high rates of COVID-19.”

In the statement, the health unit said it is preparing to implement further restrictions on the number of people who can gather as another strategy to reduce the spread of the virus, given that two-dose vaccination status cannot be relied upon for protection against the Omicron variant.

“Unfortunately, the easing of provincial restrictions in October allowing larger social gatherings and colder temperatures bringing people indoors has led to more close contact interactions, which have contributed to the higher case counts and more hospitalizations locally,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, SMDHU’s medical officer of health. “I am particularly concerned about the high rates of COVID-19 transmission locally at the same time we are seeing the surge in cases across Ontario with the Omicron variant for which a third dose of vaccination is required for protection. There are already great demands on our healthcare services in our community and decisive action is needed now to prevent our situation from becoming dire.”

Gardner said to address the expected surge of Omicron cases and to protect public health and healthcare capacity, the health unit has a prepared a new Letter of Instruction for all residents, employers, businesses, and organizations in Simcoe Muskoka that would reduce capacity limits for certain business types including restaurants/bars, event spaces and indoor sports and recreational fitness facilities. Private social gatherings would also be limited as would capacity at weddings, funerals and religious services.

“I intend to issue these local instructions and orders within this week if the provincial government does not announce broad province-wide restrictions and other public health measures to stem the rise of Omicron,” stated Gardner, noting that the instructions and orders would come into effect on Monday, Dec. 20. “If we are to manage Omicron with any success, it will be critical that along with these additional restrictions that reduce physical interaction as much as possible in all settings, that everyone continues to comply with the existing public health measures.” 

Gardner told a media briefing on Wednesday that there were 26 Omicron cases identified in Simcoe Muskoka.

“They are not all located in a single household,” he noted. “They are actually located in a variety of settings. Some of them are travel-related and some of them are not. With that observation, I think it’s important to note that in fact we are seeing transmission of the Omicron variant in Simcoe Muskoka.”

With Christmas and New Year’s fast approaching, Gardner said it is important that people greatly reduce their physical contact with each other in the community.

“So, people as individuals need to take this to heart and choose only to go out to such settings if you must, and take all precautions when you do, and greatly scale back your social contacts, including those you have into your home,” he explained.

Gardner said the same was needed in public and business settings.

“We have a situation where proof of two doses of vaccination can attend such settings to full capacity, and with Omicron you cannot rely on two doses of vaccine to be protective.”

Gardner has sent a letter to the government asking that capacity limits be imposed province-wide, but either way, he is prepared to act locally on Dec. 20. He wants the province to place restrictions on the capacity of businesses and public settings to 50 per cent in order to allow for more spacing and less contact in those settings and to reduce the gathering limit in social settings down to 10 people from the present 25.

The health unit is stepping up its efforts to increase the level of vaccination amongst residents over the next few weeks, focusing on providing booster doses for eligible individuals, including those aged 50 years and older who received their second dose of COVID-19 vaccine at least 168 days ago, while maintaining access to the important first dose vaccination for 5 to 11-year-olds. To accomplish this ambitious campaign, the health unit is significantly increasing the number of appointments at its community clinics and is collaborating closely with its various health care and pharmacy partners to greatly increase access to COVID-19 vaccines in many locations for eligible individuals. The health unit is also placing all non-COVID-19-related programs and services on hold so that staff can be redeployed to support the COVID-19 vaccination efforts, while maintaining basic COVID-19 case and contact management, outbreak management, enforcement, phone line, surveillance and communications response.

Booster vaccines are available at community clinics by appointment and can be booked through the COVID-19 Vaccination Portal or by calling the Provincial Vaccine Contact Centre at 1-833-943-3900. COVID-19 vaccinations are also available at the Cottage Country Family Health Team in Gravenhurst and the Algonquin Family Health Team in Huntsville, Couchiching Ontario Health Team Clinic, some health care providers and family health teams, select pharmacies, the GO-VAXX Bus, and some Indigenous-led clinics. All other eligible individuals, including children five to 11 years, who have not yet received a first, second or third dose of vaccine are encouraged to do so as soon as possible and may also book an appointment for one of these options.

Carmine Stumpo, President and CEO of Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, and on behalf of the six hospitals in Simcoe Muskoka, said any further increase in hospitalization associated with a COVID-19 surge will create significant capacity issues region-wide.

“With the recent rise in overall COVID-19 in our region, along with the rapidly emerging threat of the Omicron variant, we are concerned that access to necessary hospital services may be at risk,” said Stumpo. “Hospitals currently are still recovering from previous delays in accessing care, continue to support COVID-related supports like testing centres and vaccination clinics and coping with staff shortages on a regular basis. Front-line and support staff in hospitals across the region have been stretched well beyond their usual capacity for an extended period of time.