GUELPH – Dr. Nicola Mercer supports the gradual reopening of Ontario and easing of COVID-19 mandates as announced by the province on Feb. 14.
In an interview on Feb. 22, the medical officer of health for Wellington-Guelph-Dufferin Public Health said the virus will always be among us, but with strong vaccination numbers and shrinking hospitalizations, the time is right to get back to normal life.
“As mandates change, we will move from the state of ordering mandates to a state that will normalize the behaviours that have kept us safe,” she said.
For example, schools opened after Christmas, “and we did not see a spike in cases. Millions got Omicron but we didn’t see hospitalization numbers spike,” she said.
She said between high vaccination rates in the region, and natural immunity for those who have had COVID-19, “there’s a lot of immunity in the community that’s helping. It won’t last forever, but it’s helping.”
The province announced a number of changes that came into effect Feb. 17, mostly around increasing capacity limits to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors for social gatherings, and removing capacity limits in restaurants, bars, fitness facilities, casinos, cinemas, weddings and funerals.
And on March 1, the province will lift proof of vaccination requirements for all settings.
“We’re all watching,” Mercer said. “We anticipate it’s not going to cause a huge spike.”
Mercer said the vaccine passport was a measure to encourage people to get vaccinated and it’s the vaccine – safe and effective – that has turned the tide.
“Not having the vaccine mandate doesn’t mean the vaccine didn’t do the job. It did the job,” she said. “And there may be a time in the future, like the fall, when we ask people to get their shots again. It’s a small ask for broad health benefits across the country.”
Health Canada recently approved the use of Novovax, a protein-based vaccine that’s been under development for the past two years.
Deliveries are expected to reach Canada in March, and Mercer said anyone who isn’t vaccinated because they are nervous about mRNA vaccines, might prefer Novovax as it is based on familiar technology.
And for those who become ill, there are two new treatments, although only certain people will qualify, Mercer said.
First, you have to have a confirmed COVID-19 test. That means confirmed by a physician administering a rapid test, or by health professionals at an assessment centre.
And second, there’s a five-day window for Paxlovid, a pill, and a seven-day window for Sotrovimab, an injection, to be administered before the treatment is ineffective. The nearest place to get a shot of Sotrovimab is in Hamilton, which adds another barrier to treatment.
“So, reach out to your primary caregiver right away” if you are symptomatic, Mercer said, adding that people over age 50 and especially those who are unvaccinated are most at risk of hospitalization and severe outcomes from COVID-19.
Mercer called the vaccine a “shield” that has done so much to reduce infection, spread and severity of illness. Even though vaccine clinics are winding down, the vaccine will be available to anyone who wants their first, second and booster shots.
Other public health measures, such as masking, hand washing and maintaining physical distance, form the second line of defense and these mandates have not yet been lifted.
Mercer said she’ll consider lifting her Section 22 mask mandate when the province lifts theirs. Mercer brought a mask mandate into force in this region about a week before the province did back in 2020.
“As we head into the summer, COVID will recede but when fall comes and we move back indoors, it will come back,” Mercer said.
“That could potentially mean masking again. And for older, vulnerable, and unvaccinated people, it’s probably not good to go to crowded places where people have masks off.”
Mercer said she’s not contemplating any additional COVID measures and is encouraging people to protect themselves and their families in whatever form that takes.
“Hopefully people will understand the need to be tolerant of that,” she said.