'Too early' to say when Waterloo Region can move into Step 2, top doctor says

Waterloo Region's top doctor says it's too soon to know when the area will be able to join the rest of Ontario and move into Step 2 of the reopening plan.

"It's too early to say at this time, but I know people would like to know as soon as possible," Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang said at the region's weekly COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday morning. "I am committed to giving regular updates on our situation and we'll provide this community as much information as I know, when I know it."

The province moved into Step 2 as of 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, meaning personal care services can open as long as people wear face coverings. The step also allows for indoor and outdoor gatherings, with limits, and more capacity at retail stores.

Waterloo Region, however, will likely stay in Step 1 until mid-July as the region continues to deal with a spike in Delta variant cases.

'DELTA VARIANT IS THE GREATEST ADVERSARY'

"The Delta variant is the greatest adversary our community has faced during this pandemic," Dr. Wang said. "It is the most transmissible and aggressive variant we have experienced."

Without public health measures, Dr. Wang said cases of the variant can spread very quickly, multiplying from one case to six to 36 to 216 to 1,296 in a matter of days.

"That's how aggressive Delta is," she said. "It will take some time to slow the spread."

According to Dr. Wang, the region is starting to see "signs of stabilization" in case rates. However, she said case rates and outbreaks will likely to continue to fluctuate in the coming days and weeks.

She also said there is no specific number in mind for when the region can move into Step 2.

"We're aiming for overall stabilization and control of spread, while we continue to build that greater wall of protection through immunization," Dr. Wang said.

Spread of the disease continues to be mostly through close contact, which can mean spread between households and friends and family at gatherings.

VACCINES 'MOST POWERFUL TOOL' AGAINST DELTA

Regional officials said vaccines continue to be the best defence against the Delta variant, since the majority of cases are among people who are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated.

"It is our most powerful tool and we are making good progress in that," Dr. Wang said.

Chair Karen Redman said there have been 46,000 vaccine doses administered in Waterloo Region since last Wednesday.

"The vaccine rollout is working," she said.

Clinics in the region continue to expand hours and availability to keep up with demand for vaccine appointments. All residents over the age of 18 are now eligible for an accelerated second dose.

Starting Thursday, first dose walk-ins will be available at all vaccine clinics in the region. There will also be a drive-thru vaccine clinic at Bingemans from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Appointments at that clinic must be booked in advance.

"Many community partners are working together to get vaccines in arms as quickly as possible," said Dept. Chief Shirley Hilton, who is leading vaccine rollout in Waterloo Region.

She acknowledged it may be frustrating for people who can't book an appointment immediately, but said they're working to offer more appointments as soon as they are available.

Vaccines are also available at pharmacies and primary care offices in the region.

PRESSURE ON LOCAL HOSPITALS

Waterloo Region's hospitals continue to feel the impact of the Delta variant in the community. Ron Gagnon, president and CEO of Grand River Hospital, said Wednesday there are 25 COVID-19-positive patients in his hospital right now, along with 20 people who are no longer infectious but still require hospital treatment.

Gagnon said those patients account for 15 per cent of overall medical and surgical capacity at GRH.

"This is still with us in a very real way," he said.

Gagnon added many front-line staff are tired, and there's been an increase in people taking leaves of absence at his hospital.

"The strategic delay in moving our region to the next level, it's something that we would embrace and support wholeheartedly, because of our ultimate goal to reopen and stay open and keeping all of our residents safe," Gagnon said. "I know it doesn't feel comfortable for different parts of the community and I respect that. However, I would say, when you walk through an ICU and see what is happening to families and see what is happening to the caregivers, it does give you a different perspective."

Gagnon and Wang also encouraged people to stay close to home, rather than travelling to other regions where restrictions are looser.

SEEK TESTING IF NEEDED

Anyone who is concerned they might have COVID-19 symptoms should seek testing right away and self-isolate while waiting for results.

Dr. Wang said testing numbers have dropped recently, adding it's very easy to book an appointment for a COVID-19 test at a local site.