Due to Omicron, Hamilton’s top doc says holiday gatherings may need to be downsized

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Published December 14, 2021 at 9:36 pm

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson is Hamilton's medical officer of health. (YouTube/Cable 14)

Thanks to Omicron, Hamiltonians will likely have to cut down their holiday socializing before they carve the Christmas turkey.

During a briefing on Tuesday, the City of Hamilton’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, acknowledged that residents should reconsider the size of their holiday gatherings, and how many events they attend. The advent of the Omicron variant has led to several public health units to revisit restrictions, including the size of a gathering in a private home, that were in place earlier in the 20-months-old pandemic.

“That’s very much under active discussion at this point, while we’re considering where those recommendations or requirements may go, locally we very much encourage people to be looking at those plans,” Richardson said. “It’s definitely not a message any of us want to hear. At this time of year, we would love to be getting together with our family and friends.

“But start now with thinking about your own personal situation, what your personal situation is for your family in terms of their risk for severe outcomes, and we’ll come forward with advice in the next few days.”

The current restrictions set maximum capacity for a gathering in a private home at 25 people. On Monday, Kingston, which is the province’s ground zero for Omicron, reverted to a five-person capacity limit in private homes. (The restriction applies only in the city, not the entire Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington health unit.)

The case rate in Kingston is 4½ times higher than Hamilton — 280 per 100,000 population, compared to Hamilton’s 62 per 100,000. While scientific consensus around Omicron is far from fully formed, it spreads much quicker than the Delta variant, even among people who have two doses of vaccine. There is some early indication that the severity is less pronounced on average.

“Omicron has certainly been much faster with the spread we’re seeing and we’re trying to get the messaging out, understand it and give people information that is clear,” Richardson said. “Essentially, what we’re seeing with this, as you have heard from Dr. (Kieran) Moore (Ontario’s CMOH), four to eight more people are being infected with (each case of) Omicron than with Delta.

“That transmission is exponential, and it’s a very steep slope in terms of how quickly spread is occurring.”

Hamilton’s rolling seven-day average is at 53 cases, marking the first time in three months that it has been above 50.

Three outbreaks in the city that involve a suspected Omicron case, Richardson said. One was linked to the West End Pub, another to the downtown Homewood Suites hotel and the other to St. Patrick Catholic Elementary School. The latter involves seven students and one staff members.

Eisenberger: ‘Cause for action’

Hamilton’s test positivity rate is 2.7 per cent, which is less than half the province’s 6.6 rate. Richardson said 27 per cent of children age five to 11 have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine since becoming eligible on Nov. 23, three weeks ago. About 47,000 third doses have been given in Hamilton, even though people age 50 and up who are not in designated categories (such as healthcare workers and the immunocompromised) just became eligible on Monday. Third doses, often called boosters, do “particularly well to protect against Omicron,” Richardson said.

The city is also averaging fewer than one new hospitalization per day due to COVID-19. But Richardson emphasized that no one is sure “what level of severity” Omicron is packing, so the current numbers could just be a calm before the storm, albeit one the workers who create Hamilton’s health infrastructure and the city have a chance to batten down against.

“This is not a cause for panic — but a cause for action,” Mayor Fred Eisenberger said. “I encourage everyone to listen to the public health advice, and take head and make the changes over the holidays. Sadly, I wish we could have not had this happen at this point in time but the reality is, the virus is dictating what we have to do.

“It might curtail some of the joy we’d like to experience this holiday season, but please, this is an important issue.”

Richardson said there will be more announcements within the next few days about expansion of vaccination efforts to level seen previously in the pandemic. Partnerships with the Shelter Health Network and Hamilton paramedics area also being considered as a way of getting vaccines to vulnerable people, such as unhoused and homebound people.

Another Hamilton media briefing will be held on Dec. 20, Eisenberger said.

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