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Ottawa Public Health to increase contact tracing, testing, with two more cases of Omicron confirmed

Dr. Vera Etches says increased testing and health measures continue to be in place for international travellers.
2020-09-21 dr. vera etches CK1
Ottawa Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches speaks outside of the Chateau Laurier, September 2020. Chris Kurys/ OttawaMatters.com

The city's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches confirmed two more cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, at Monday's Board of Health meeting, which now brings the city's total to four. 

While the cases were unrelated, she says those individuals travelled independently to Nigeria and have since been in self-isolation.

Ottawa Public Health (OPH) also confirmed, Monday, that 15 local travellers have been to different countries in the south African regions over 
the past 14 days. Dr. Etches says OPH has worked closely with them to ensure they were following travel safety measures. 

Dr. Etches added, as a public health measure, OPH will look at those who travelled to countries even where the variant has not yet been detected. 

"A cautious approach could consider any recent travel outside of Canada, which is including but not limited to countries or regions with confirmed Omicron cases," she said. 

She also urges family members and household contacts of international travellers to self-isolate or get tested even if they are asymptomatic or fully vaccinated.

Two additional cases were also being investigated in Hamilton. The potential cases in that region were flagged for further genome sequencing because of the residents' recent travel to South Africa, but did not provide more information about when they travelled or were tested. 

Ontario’s top doctor warned that additional infections would likely be detected and the province said it was considering speeding up COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

Dr. Kieran Moore said genomic sequencing is being conducted on 100 per cent of positive samples. He said they are also currently reviewing any measures that the province may have to take if they start staying daily increasing cases and a slight uptake in the number of cases in the ICU.

The rollout of booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine are also being reviewed in light of the new variant. “You can anticipate potential acceleration of our third dose strategy,” said Dr. Moore.

After convening a group of experts to assess the data, the WHO said that “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant,” as compared to other variants. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again.

The federal government on Friday barred visitors from seven southern African countries in an effort to prevent the variant from crossing into Canada, but Nigeria was not among them.

The list of countries could be updated as the province learns more about the variant. 

There have been 375 people who have returned from those seven countries to Ontario in the last two weeks, according to Dr. Moore.

The province has called on Ottawa to implement point-of-arrival COVID-19 testing for everyone entering Canada regardless of where they came from, instead of just requiring them to get tested before leaving for Canada.

Dr. Moore reiterated this during his press conference, saying he would like to see all returning travellers get tested.

“I think we’re learning from the epidemiology of this that this virus has been present on the globe for probably many, many weeks, if not months, and it has spread to multiple locations around the globe as we’re learning every minute of every hour.”

Dr. Moore said there are still a lot of questions surrounding the variant, including how effective the vaccine is against it and whether it causes a more severe illness.

He added the province is also in active conversation to review the Merck and Pfizer anti-viral pills with the federal government.

“We’re anticipating somewhere in the first quarter to have some of these tools available … so that alone should protect those individuals and minimize the health system impact. ”

Dr. Moore also said getting vaccinated is still one of the best ways to protect yourself from the virus. He noted 6.4 per cent of children aged 5-11 have already received their first dose.

He said he wants to assure residents the province is ready to respond in any way possible to the new variant.

“I think all Ontarians should be assured we’ve got good testing, surveillance, whole genome sequencing capacity and because of that, we will continue to find cases and further protect Ontarians through local public health agencies doing that great day to day work of case and content management.”

Quebec’s health minister Christian Dube said 115 recent travellers, most returning from southern Africa, have been asked to take a PCR test and isolate.

Public health director Horacio Arruda said Quebec’s case also involved a person who had travelled from Nigeria, but he would not confirm whether it was linked to the Ontario cases.

With files from Meredith Bond and the Canadian Press.