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More Omicron variant cases likely to be detected in district

There have been five confirmed cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant detected in the Thunder Bay District and the medical officer of health says more are likely, largely resulting from travel outside of the region.
COVID-19 2021 3

THUNDER BAY - Public health officials say it is likely more COVID-19 cases in the Thunder Bay District will screen positive for the new Omicron variant in the coming weeks, largely the result of travel outside of the region to areas like Southern Ontario and Minnesota.

“I think people need to prepare for the fact that Omicron will likely be coming to our area in more significant numbers and we will see spread of it here and the implications of that are unknown,” said Dr. Janet DeMille, medical officer of health with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit.

The Omicron variant has already been detected in the district, with five cases now having screened positive. The first four cases were related to travel to southern Africa and the health unit said it was anticipating four more possible cases as a result of close household contacts, with one now having screened positive.

DeMille said there are no concerns of further close contact spread from the confirmed or suspected cases of the variant already detected.

“Right from the beginning we took a very strong approach,” she said. “Stronger measures, getting a lot of information from people, and being able to track that down. I think it went well. We are working with people who are directly impacted and we appreciate the support that they gave us.”

But DeMille added it is concerning that the variant has been found here so soon, as well as how fast it seems to be growing in other parts of the world, including Ontario.

“Although it was just recognized just a couple of weeks ago, it seems far more prominent in the world and spreading,” she said. “We are still understanding what this is going to mean for the broader communities and population. I am more concerned with what might be happening in Southern Ontario. There are some situations where Omicron may spread in the communities.

“We might see more introduction of Omicron in our area, especially form potential travel over the holiday time.”

Last week, the health unit advised against non-essential travel to the states of Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all of which have some of the highest rates of new COVID-19 cases in the United States. A confirmed case of the Omicron variant was also detected in the state of Minnesota.

More restrictions could be coming

The number of new COVID-19 cases in the district also remains high, with the number of active cases now sitting at 134.

Dr. Peter Juni, who is the scientific director of the province's COVID-19 science advisory table, recently said the district’s COVID-19 numbers are on the wrong trajectory, which could start to be challenging if further mitigating measures are not taken.

The comments also follow the province releasing new COVID-19 modelling that shows the province could see a significant increase in new daily cases by the end of the month.

DeMille said the number of cases in the district is too high and she is hopeful they will start to come down but there is still uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant and how it could impact community spread.

“We are not in the same situations as some other health units, at least right now,” she said. “I think that whatever measures get put in place need to be informed by the local data and the local context. Just because something might be implemented in one health unit doesn’t necessary mean will in another health unit.”

The health unit is working to manage the current surge and DeMille said more information will be released in the coming days regarding any further restrictions and enhanced school measures.

“But they will be based on our current context and our current situation,” she said. “As we move forward whether it’s next week, or three weeks, or a month from now, more measures will be implemented to manage COVID-19.”

High vaccination rate benefitting district

A contributing factor to the high number of cases recently is several school outbreaks, primarily at the elementary level. Vaccinations for children between the ages of five and 12-years-old just started last month.

DeMille said the difference in spread between elementary schools and high schools shows how much of a difference the vaccine is making.

Though there is a mix in the number of positive cases being detected in unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals.

“We see children with COVID who are unvaccinated. Those children are very good at giving it to their family members who they are close contacts with and those people are fully immunized,” she said.

But DeMille added those who test positive and are fully vaccinated often have very mild symptoms or none at all and the number of hospitalizations in the district is much lower than the previous year when vaccines were not readily available.  

“I think we’ve come a long way and we’ve really benefitted from this vaccine,” DeMille said. “I do still worry about people who haven’t received their first dose. There are a number of people who have not received their second dose. And those who are eligible, I would certainly encourage to get that booster dose to top up their immunity as we potentially enter a challenging time.”

With the growing number of cases, the demand for testing has also increased. The Ministry of Health and Ontario Health have recently setup a new mobile testing vendor to enhance the needs of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre assessment centre.

“Part of our very strong approach to case and contact management and following up on people requires people to have access to testing and we want to get them in as soon as we can,” DeMille said. “We do want people who have symptoms to get tested and we want to make sure they have access to testing.”

Doug Diaczuk

About the Author: Doug Diaczuk

Doug Diaczuk is a reporter and award-winning author from Thunder Bay. He has a master’s degree in English from Lakehead University
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