According to the medical officers of health in both municipalities, Hamilton and Niagara region are seeing another wave of COVID-19.
“Earlier than we thought, we’re seeing the start of a new wave,” Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton’s medical officer of health, told CBC Hamilton on Wednesday.
“It does seem to be a slower rise than we’ve seen in other waves,” she said, pointing to vaccination rates, the number of people who have already been infected and the fact people are outside more often because of summer.
Hamilton public health data released Wednesday afternoon shows the number of cases and outbreaks have just about doubled in the past two weeks.
Meanwhile, the presence of COVID-19 in local wastewater has more than doubled, with the levels being close to where they were when Hamilton’s pandemic state of emergency ended on May 10.
This comes as the province is also seeing a new wave.
Hamilton hospitals struggle amid new wave
In a Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) staff town hall last week, Sharon Pierson, HHS executive vice president of clinical operations and chief operating officer, said the hospital network has seen “a bit of a pickup” in outbreaks and workers in self-isolation.
As of Wednesday, there were 48 patients with COVID-19 and 268 staff in isolation between HHS and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.
Pierson said HHS is still struggling with high occupancy rates.
She said there have been “inordinate” volumes of patients in the emergency department and a “significant increase” at McMaster Children’s Hospital’s emergency department (ED) too.
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“It’s certainly not isolated to HHS or Hamilton, it’s very broad across the province and country that we’re seeing these sustained pressures within EDs, in the [intensive care units] and certainly within that children’s population.”
Pierson said staffing and occupancy pressures have led to a decrease in surgeries.
She said the surgical activity was about 75 per cent of what it was before the pandemic.
Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, said Niagara hospitals are in a better state than they were months prior but there’s been a doubling of COVID-19 patients in the last 10 days or so.
Province dropped measures too soon: Hirji
Hirji said while society is in a better position than it was two years ago, “we rushed to act like the pandemic was over even though it wasn’t.”
He made the comparison to climate change, saying the choices we make have a significant impact even if we don’t see them day to day.
“People have returned to a lot of their normal routines … it can seem like the virus isn’t around here and everything is back to normal but of course it’s not,” he said.
Hamilton has seen 450 COVID-19 deaths, while Niagara has seen 566 deaths. Hirji also warned of long COVID.
Hirji said mask mandates in most indoor settings and vaccination policies in high-risk settings with vulnerable people (like hospitals and long-term care requirements) should make a return.
He also said someone should only be considered fully vaccinated after three doses and proof of vaccination should be introduced during surges.
Richardson said there’s no sign of a vaccine mandate coming into play, despite the fact current outbreaks in Hamilton long-term care homes show getting immunized helps.
“We’re still not seeing signs of severity in those outbreaks that are happening so that’s really reassuring that if you get vaccinated you are far less likely to have severe disease, to be hospitalized, to be in the ICU,” she said.
Besides getting the vaccine, Richardson recommends wearing a mask indoors, spending time outside, staying home if you’re sick, washing your hands and practicing physical distancing.
She also said people should check to see if they’re eligible for a PCR test instead of relying on rapid tests.
Hirji said workers should also have more paid sick days and emphasized people should stay home if they’re sick.
‘COVID hasn’t and won’t disappear’
Dr. Dominik Mertz, HHS medical director of infection prevention control, said in an interview Wednesday, despite the grim news of another wave, there is some good news right now.
For one, deaths and hospitalizations in Hamilton aren’t climbing the way other metrics are. Though he did say it’s hard to say if the death and hospitalization rate will rise.
The BA.5 sub-variant of COVID-19 is on the rise in the city and the number of people with three vaccine shots has barely moved in the past two months, staying at roughly 48 per cent.
Though Mertz also said the campaign for fourth doses among high-risk populations has been good.
He said the takeaway for the public is they shouldn’t panic, but shouldn’t be worry-free either.
“Predicting what’s going to happen in the next few weeks or the summer is very hard … we are in early stages of an increase at this point of time, I think that’s all we know for sure,” Mertz said.
“It’s a reminder for everyone COVID hasn’t and will not disappear.”