Sutcliffe: Delta variant could cause fourth wave this fall without adequate vaccine coverage

Public Health Sudbury and Districts changed the way it reports variant cases last week because officials felt the previous method was “misleading.”

The number of variant cases in the region is probably much higher than the six previously reported because not all cases that screen positive for variants of concern are sent for genome testing.

To better reflect case data in the region and encourage the public to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the health unit decided to start reporting confirmed and presumed cases together.

“Before, our reporting method basically gave us a bit of a false sense of security or a decreased sense of what’s actually circulating,” said Medical Officer of Health Dr. Penny Sutcliffe.

“The easiest way to explain it is that there’s a specific mutation profile in Ontario that is consistent with the Delta variant. Almost all of the samples that have this mutation profile test positive in whole genome sequencing for the Delta variant.”

Dr. Sutcliffe said the reporting method used previously was not accurate.

“They haven’t been confirmed yet, but in Ontario right now, when you see this mutation profile, you pretty much know it’s the Delta variant,” she said.

“Delta is the dominant strain in Ontario, so it’s no surprise that it’s the dominant strain here locally.”

Public Health has reported 13 cases of COVID-19 in the region from July 1 to July 26. It is estimated that about 70 per cent of those cases are Delta variants.

One new confirmed or presumed case was reported on Monday, and a total of 997 confirmed or presumed cases have been reported since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The Delta variant is much more easily spread from person to person. It’s also more associated with hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths,” said Dr. Sutcliffe.

“Although the vaccine is effective, you do need two doses in order to prevent symptomatic infections. One dose appears to be effective at preventing hospitalizations, but for this variant, you need two doses to prevent symptoms.”

This is concerning, added Dr. Sutcliffe, because all of the models about vaccine coverage rates and herd immunity in the past have been based on the Alpha variant.

“We need even higher rates of vaccine coverage to protect us well enough that we don’t need to have any more of these individual or public health measures,” she said.

“Because 10 to 11 per cent of our population can’t be immunized, we need 90 per cent of the rest of us to get immunized to protect everybody else.”

Vaccine rates in Greater Sudbury are slowing down, which is why public health is trying to make immunization clinics as accessible as possible and encourage everyone to get their first and second dose.

“It’s especially important for the fall when we head back indoors and kids are back in school,” she said.

“The provincial metrics to leave step three is overall 80 per cent for dose one and 75 per cent for dose two. None of the 34 public health jurisdictions can be lower than 70 per cent for two doses.”

Sudbury is on track having reach 80 per cent for dose one over the weekend, but it has not yet reached 75 per cent for two doses, she added.

“That is a concern. The barrier is not vaccine supply or immunizers – we need arms. It’s more and more difficult to reach people,” she said.

“It’s not necessarily those who are against vaccines, but it’s the people who haven’t gotten around to it yet. It’s not really on their radar. And this is not fearmongering. It’s just stating the facts. This Delta variant could well cause a fourth wave in the fall.”

Dr. Sutcliffe expects that once the province moves past step three of its reopening plan, there will be very little – if any – public health measures in place.

“I am very hopeful that the recommendation about masking indoors will remain in place, particularly when we don’t have 90 per cent vaccine coverage rates,” she said.

“I think it will be important for us to consider our vaccination status and using a real common-sense approach to protect ourselves and prevent spread. I will continue to wear a mask indoors where I know I can’t keep two metres from those around me.”

Ontario, meanwhile, is planning to soon provide more regular updates on how many COVID-19 cases are in vaccinated and unvaccinated people, as the province’s top doctor said Tuesday the risk of getting the disease is 6.4 times higher for unvaccinated people.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said that it’s complicated work to tie individual cases to vaccination status, but it’s important information. There are about 1.8 million eligible Ontarians who still need a second shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, he said, and the Delta variant is expected to cause a rise in cases in the coming months.

“I think that’s essential information to be able to relay to Ontarians, the absolute benefit of the reduction in risk of getting COVID if you’re immunized versus not immunized,” he said.

Ontario reports new case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths daily, but does not provide the vaccination status of those people.

Public Health Ontario releases biweekly reports with some of those numbers based on vaccination status, and the Ministry of Health said Tuesday it is in the process of revising that report to include rates of cases in vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

But the totals in the report are cumulative back to December, when very few people had received shots, making it difficult to get an accurate picture of recent cases.

Family physician Dr. Jennifer Kwan said she looked at two recent reports and spent hours calculating percentages of vaccinated and unvaccinated people that have been hospitalized or died in the previous month.

She found that between June 12 and July 10, nearly 96 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in the province were in unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people.

All but one of the 11 deaths during that time in fully vaccinated people were in individuals aged 80 and older.

In that same time period, 99.5 per cent of all COVID-19 intensive care unit admissions were in unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people. Just one fully vaccinated person during that month ended up in ICU due to COVID-19.

– with files from Canadian Press

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

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