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May. 21, 2022 | Saturday
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Hirji fears rapid spike in COVID variants with quick reopening
File photo/Rene Bertschi.

Niagara is likely headed for the pandemic red zone, but not on the advice of the region's acting chief medical officer of health.

During a news conference Monday, Dr. Mustafa Hirji said with COVID-19 variants confirmed in the Greater Toronto Area, there's a real risk of the virus spreading to Niagara.

Public health is already investigating six cases of suspected variant cases in the region, all of which are linked to the GTA directly or indirectly, Hirji said.

Technically, most cases in North America and western Europe are actually a variant called D614G Variant, Hirji said, which originated in Italy last year.

"And that really became the variant of the virus that spread through most of western Europe spread throughout North America."

While there is some debate about whether the common variant spreads faster than the virus that originated in China, one thing that is for sure is  the new variants B117 (U.K. origin), B1351 (South Africa) and B.1 (Brazil) do spread much more quickly, he said.

"These ones are definitely even more transmissible and spread more easily," Hirji said.

He said while the measures in place now have been somewhat effective, it "is not enough to control these other ones and slowly these other ones start to pick up pace and grow more quickly."

If it weren't for the variants and people continued to stay locked down, "we're on this great trajectory that we would see cases continue to come down and down and down," Hirji said.

His concern is, now, with variants, the province is pushing to open up.

He said based on models with the variant included, cases are predicted to "spike very rapidly upwards."

"And quick reopening, of course, means that we see that spike more easily," he said.

"To control these variants, we actually need to continue to have enhanced measures in place in society to continue to keep (cases) low. And that's unfortunately the scenario that we are potentially facing here in Canada with those various stories to establish themselves."

Around the world, in the U.K., Spain, Netherlands, Hirji said it's the same story, coming out of lockdown to a major spike in cases due to variants.

"And that's because those variants were able to spread even more quickly than the previous version of virus, leading to that kind of spread," Hirji said.

"That's what we need to try and avoid seeing here in Canada and particularly in Ontario."

Even in Canada, in the Atlantic bubble, cases are starting to overwhelm systems that had done a good job keeping the original variant at bay.

In Newfoundland, there have been more cases in the last 10 days than there had been since the start of the pandemic, Hirji said.

And while Ontario hasn't had nearly as many cases, he said nonetheless it's "a really cautionary tale of how quickly things could change if those variants start to take hold in a serious way here."

To control it, we need more strict measures, he said, not fewer.

He pointed out that even though cases in Niagara are coming down, the rate of new infections is still "well higher" than it was during the first wave of the pandemic.

According to Public Health Agency of Canada and the Ontario Science Table, Hirji said, at some point variant cases are "going to start to rise, very rapidly."

At Monday's council meeting, Coun. Gary Burroughs raised concerns about vaccines being diverted from Niagara without knowing where they went, and asked whether the town is "confident supplies are actually coming soon to our residents."

Chief administrator Marnie Cluckie said she didn't want to "overstep into public health's realm" by commenting on the vaccine rollout, but that the region is "making every effort to bring it here as quickly as they are able to and Niagara-on-the-Lake will not be left behind."