Whats New in COVID: Numbers Fall, Fears Rise

A growing fear of COVID variants is keeping Toronto’s stay-at-home order in place until at least March 8. Restrictions were to loosen this coming Monday in Toronto and neighboring Peel, following weeks of improving case numbers.

But the Province today said it would maintain current restrictions, following requests from the Medical Officers of Health in both regions, in addition to warnings from multiple health experts that numbers could skyrocket if the variants take hold. Restrictions in York Region are being relaxed – for no apparent reason other than that the Medical Officer of Health there said it was okay.

In Toronto, the 7-day average of daily cases fell to 348 this week – a remarkable decline from more than double that number about a month ago and better than anything we’ve seen since October. But health officials have stressed the need to get the numbers lower and to carefully monitor the spread of new variants that are both more transmissible and less controllable through vaccination.

In short, we need to focus on the storm that’s coming and not be misled by this week’s bluer skies.

A virus from the UK recently spread through a Barrie nursing home, infecting all 129 residents and 106 staff, killing 71 of them. Scientific modelling is predicting that this virus could become dominant in Ontario within weeks. If that happens, its higher transmission rate will trigger exponential growth that will be difficult to contain.

In Mississauga this week, a variant first identified in South Africa infected five residents living in the same condominium but with no apparent connection other than that. This prompted concerns that the virus could have spread through brief contact in common areas such as corridors or elevators. Compounding those concerns are recent studies showing that this variant is partly resistant to vaccines.

The combination of government restrictions and people being more likely to follow them has shown that it works. But any chance of avoiding a third wave – or even curbing it – likely depends on people being even more vigilant as variants crowd out initial forms of the virus.

Previous advice was that you were unlikely to catch COVID unless you were in close contact with someone who had it for more than 15 minutes. But the spread in the Mississauga condo calls that advice into question. Could a much shorter elevator ride with an infected person put you at risk? What type of mask do you need in such circumstances?

The simple advice: try to avoid those situations and, when you can’t, make sure you are properly masked.

Although many experts say you should be okay with a three-layer mask, one layer of which should be a filter, other reliable sources now suggest wearing two masks at once or even an N95 mask intended for health care professionals. Whatever mask you wear, it is very important that it fit snugly, allowing little or no air to get in or out around the edges.

The news this week has not been all bad. We are scheduled to finally get the vaccine supply we need to start moving through priority groups and eventually reach the larger population. By this week, all residents of long-term care homes in Toronto had received two doses of vaccine. Earlier today, the Province announced that all residents 80 and over will start getting vaccinated around the middle of March. Lower age groups will follow, perhaps in April and May.

Details about who gets vaccinated in what order, and how people will be told how to book an appointment, are controlled by the provincial government. I will pass that information along in this newsletter as soon as it is available.

Also this week, studies were released showing that even a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine was more than 90% effective two weeks after receiving it.