Special Statement from Dr. Vera Etches

Hello. Bonjour. Kwey.

I appreciate the mixed reaction to the announcement by the Province that in-person learning will resume on Monday, January 17.  In-person learning is welcome news for many parents and caregivers, but I can understand that others may be concerned. Parents have many questions. OPH is working closely with the local school boards and partners in child care and as more information is confirmed by the provincial government, we will work with our partners to update families and child care providers.

Each family can and should make individual assessments on what works best for them when it comes to sending children back to in-person learning.

What everyone can continue to do to decrease the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools and child care is:

  • get vaccinated and
  • stay home when sick

Ottawa Public Health and partners continue to focus on increasing vaccination rates among students, children and school staff. There are many available vaccine appointments for people who have not yet been able to receive their vaccine. Please book your child’s first or second dose as soon as they are eligible. And for parents, if you haven’t done so already, it’s not too late to book your vaccine appointments as well.  We will be returning to offer school-based immunization clinics  for people of all ages facing more barriers to vaccination and people will be notified of these opportunities in their neighbourhoods.

For children aged five to 11, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends an eight-week interval between first and second doses, as evidence shows this schedule produces a stronger and longer-lasting immune response. However, a shorter interval of no less than 21-days has been shown to be safe and effective. Parents who wish to book their child at a shorter interval have the option to do so by calling the provincial booking line at 1-833-943-3900 or dropping into a community clinic. People will be given a second dose at a shorter interval in our clinics with informed consent.

For people who may find it easier to drop-in for a vaccine, Ottawa Public Health is expanding drop-in capacity at community COVID-19 vaccination clinics to everyone eligible – whether for first, second or booster doses. We will provide daily updates on specific clinic availability on our social media platforms to show where wait times are likely to be the shortest. To reduce the likelihood of line-ups, booking an appointment is still encouraged.

In addition to vaccination, we know that schools and child care have layers of protection that slow transmission compared to other settings. These layers include daily screening, wearing a well-fitted mask, hand washing, distancing, cohorting and increased ventilation. Using the online screening tool each day before entering a school or child care environment is one of the most important ways to keep COVID-19 out of schools and child care settings. The provincial screening tool for COVID-19 like symptoms has been updated, so I encourage people to check it out this week before heading back to school or attending child care.

Ottawa Public Health will be adapting to the new provincial guidance for schools and child care. The province announced today that Rapid Antigen Tests will be available for schools and in child care settings. We will also follow the provincial guidance to make PCR home test kits available in schools for symptomatic elementary/secondary students and education staff who become symptomatic while at school.

We will also continue to promote actions and services that can support the mental health and well-being of children, such as on our Parenting in Ottawa website and on Facebook.  Prioritizing in-person learning means that higher-risk extra-curricular activities should still be limited and emphasis should be placed on outdoor activities for children and youth with a lower number of social contacts.

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As Mayor Watson mentioned, Ottawa residents of all ages continue to make significant progress getting COVID-19 booster doses, so I would like to thank you for that. I strongly recommend all residents who are eligible for a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine receive one as soon as possible. There is increasing evidence that immunity can wane over time and a third dose provides greater protection against severe illness and complications from COVID-19. Evidence is clear that the rates of hospitalization due to Omicron infection are significantly higher in unvaccinated than in vaccinated populations.

I understand there is some hesitancy from individuals who are concerned about receiving a different brand of vaccine for their third dose, such as getting a Moderna booster shot after a double dose of Pfizer or vice versa. I want to remind residents that both Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines and it is safe and effective to receive a different brand for your booster.

Another question we are hearing is whether individuals who have recently tested positive for COVID-19 still need a booster, or if they should wait. Let me be clear: people who have previously tested positive for or who suspect they contracted COVID-19 should still be vaccinated with a third dose once they have recovered and have completed their isolation and are feeling well. There is currently no evidence that suggests COVID-19 infection provides as much or better protection than a vaccine.

Again, there is capacity for first, second and third doses for those who are eligible, so please book your appointment or drop-in to a clinic today.

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I would like to speak to something many of you – myself included – have been thinking about for several months now: How much longer will this pandemic last? When will these restrictions be lifted? What’s next?

The Omicron variant is a game changer. Its high transmissibility means we must learn to adapt. As with Influenza viruses we need to protect the most vulnerable populations, such as older people in congregate settings, by vaccinating and keeping isolated when we are sick. People need ongoing supports for sick leave.

We know Omicron is spreading very quickly in the community, increasing the likelihood that most people may eventually be exposed to it. The vast majority will be able to weather the illness at home. People can prepare for this by making sure they have basic supplies and pain relief medication on hand. Seek healthcare assessment for chest pain, difficulty breathing, confusion or rapidly worsening symptoms.

Many who are unvaccinated and contract COVID-19, and even some vaccinated individuals may need hospital care to address the impacts of related illness. The health care system cannot withstand the pressure of everyone acquiring COVID-19 at the same time. The hospitals in Ottawa will maintain access to critical care. Right now, they are significantly changing how they operate to care for people with COVID and others.

Omicron cannot be stopped altogether. But we can work to blunt the peak and slow transmission so that hospitals can maintain capacity to deliver care.

This is an incredibly challenging time, and I am thankful for the efforts so many are making to support and encourage each other.

Thank you. Merci. Meegwetch.