One of the country’s hot spots for the COVID-19 Delta variant is looking to prove how fast vaccines can change a community’s fate.
A record-breaking weekend in local vaccine administration allowed Waterloo Region to jump ahead of the national immunization rate after officials announced last week that the region would join the rest of Ontario in Step 2 of the provincial reopening plan on Monday. The southern Ontario region comprising Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge also expects to follow the rest of the province into Step 3 on Friday. Some health experts, however, think the region, which still has four times more cases per capita than the provincial average, could be moving too quickly.
Last month, the region of 600,000 reported low inoculation rates and some of the worst COVID-19 case numbers in the province because of local circulation of the Delta variant. It prevented the jurisdiction from going to Step 2 on June 30.
But the regional vaccination rate has since skyrocketed. Waterloo health officials reported they administered more than 20,000 doses over the weekend, and broke a single-day regional record by jabbing 12,820 arms on Saturday in a mass vaccination campaign at Waterloo’s Bingemans Conference Centre called “Every Dose Counts.” The campaign offered first and second doses and used a vaccination model that gets people through the process quickly.
By Monday, 80 per cent of adults in Waterloo Region had received one shot, and 52 per cent were fully vaccinated, up from 6 per cent last month, when the region was declared a provincial Delta-variant hot spot.
Shirley Hilton, deputy chief of the Waterloo Regional Police Service, helped spearhead the vaccine rollout plan. She said everybody who is willing and able to be vaccinated could have both doses by the end of July.
“Things are changing so rapidly and we have ramped up capacity here quickly,” she said in Friday’s COVID-19 community update. “I really urge, do not delay ... get vaccinated right away.”
Waterloo Region Medical Officer of Health Hsiu-Li Wang said the plan now is to move along with the rest of the province. Step 3 would allow gatherings of 25 indoors and 100 outdoors, and gyms, amusement parks and indoor restaurants to open at a capacity that permits physical distancing. Sports can take place without restrictions on contact.
Waterloo Region still accounted for 288 of Ontario’s 1,610 active cases on Monday, and its number of cases per capita is still about four times greater than that of the province. The region is also home to almost a quarter of Ontario’s 75 ongoing outbreaks, including a recent one involving seven unvaccinated workers who infected 41 people in nursing and retirement homes.
Health officials at Friday’s community update said that while case numbers are stabilizing, the Delta variant is still circulating widely. Sharon Bal, a Cambridge family physician, noted an increase in hospital admissions of younger people and families because of the variant. She challenged the region to aim for a vaccination rate of 90 per cent to quell the threat of Delta as restrictions loosen, and said public health will soon reach out to individuals who are not yet vaccinated to encourage and help them to get their shot.
The lingering variant is making some health experts wonder if the region is moving through the reopening steps too quickly. Todd Coleman, an epidemiologist and assistant professor in the department of health sciences at Wilfrid Laurier University, said a rushed reopening could be costly, because many doses were administered recently and the vaccines are not fully effective immediately.
“I think our vaccination rate can still rise, pretty easily into the 80s,” he said, “but it may be warranted not to be so rushed in skipping stages when we still see a fairly large number [of cases].”
A quick move through the steps is great news for local businesses. Owners and managers say they plan to open with great caution. John Cerny, the owner of Sole Restaurant and Wine Bar, said that while going from Step 1 to Step 2 does not change much for his upscale Mediterranean eatery, Step 3 will breathe more life into his establishment than it’s had for most of the pandemic. On Friday, he plans to open indoor dining to about 80 people, more than doubling his current patio-only capacity.
“Honestly, it’s been the most exciting news we’ve had in a long time,” he said. “It’s great to get our staff back to work, and our guests back in.”
Mr. Cerny said he understands the risks of reopening, and his staff is undergoing rapid testing twice a week to ensure they are not forced to revert to curbside pickup and delivery only.
“We’re a fine-dining restaurant,” he said. “It’s about the in-person experience, the relationship with the staff, the lighting, music, temperature. We are going to go above and beyond in terms of caution. ... Getting back to why we are in this industry is very exciting.”
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