On Wednesday, Hamilton public health reported COVID transmission was increasing for the first time since April.

What you need to know as the Omicron BA.5 subvariant drives cases up

Ontarians are being told to get up to date on their COVID shots as a summer wave fuelled by the Omicron BA.5 subvariant has likely begun.

It’s a particularly important message in Hamilton where booster uptake has been sluggish.

“The third vaccine dose is critical to protect against severe disease,” stated an advisory Wednesday by Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

Its message to the public provides a guide of what Ontarians need to know about the seventh COVID wave.

Has a new wave started?

The science table declared a likely new wave on Wednesday. On the same day, Hamilton public health reported COVID transmission was increasing for the first time since April.

Both look to a number of measures, including rising wastewater samples with COVID-19 detected.

The number of tests coming back positive is above 10 per cent provincially for the first time since May. For Hamilton, it went up to an average of nearly nine per cent on June 30 from six per cent on June 16.

About 80 per cent of public health units are seeing exponential growth in cases. In Hamilton, average daily new cases were up to 62 on July 3 from 25 on June 6. Cases are a significant underestimate.

What is driving the wave?

Highly-contagious Omicron subvariants, particularly BA.5, are fuelling the summer wave.

“You can be reinfected by BA.5 even if you have recently been infected with an earlier strain,” stated the science table.

However, it doesn’t cause more serious illness.

“Current evidence does not suggest BA.5 is more severe or that it will lead to a rise in hospitalizations as large as previous waves,” stated the science table.

What if I get infected?

“Infections can leave you feeling unwell, and be disruptive to your family and work life,” stated the science table. “Each infection puts you at risk of long COVID.”

While the risk of severe illness isn’t higher with BA.5, it’s also not zero. The science table reported the first increase in COVID hospitalizations since May.

“If BA.5 spreads widely, we may see a rise in deaths among higher risk groups,” stated the science table.

What about the health-care system?

“Hospitals are already very strained,” warned the science table. “Any surge comes at a time when hospitals are already dealing with staff shortages and record wait times — this impacts all of us.”

Hamilton’s hospitals had 700 job openings they couldn’t fill as of May and 292 staff self-isolating as of Wednesday.

In addition, overcrowding on the wards and high numbers of patients coming to the emergency departments have resulted in ambulances waiting hours to off-load patients, causing a spike in “Code Zero” events in June. Code Zero is when one or no ambulances are available to respond to emergencies.

Hamilton’s hospitals also have pandemic backlogs they are trying to clear, including nearly 15,000 surgeries as of March.

At the same time, there are still COVID patients being admitted.

“Hospitalizations remain higher than at any time last summer,” stated the science table.

Do I need to wear a mask?

“Going back to wearing a mask again in crowded indoor public spaces is a good way to protect yourself until the wave is done,” stated the science table.

Hamilton public health also “strongly recommends wearing a well-fitting mask indoors, especially when it’s crowded.”

The science table suggested a high-quality surgical mask, KN95 or N95.

“Ventilate as much as possible by opening windows and doors,” stated the science table. “Choose lower risk alternatives — for example, enjoy the great weather by gathering with friends outdoors instead of indoors.”

You can still enjoy the summer while reducing your risk of getting COVID, urged the science table.

“Unfortunately, a recent infection may not protect you very well from reinfection with BA.5,” it stated. “So, as we’re entering a new wave, it’s worth re-engaging with multiple layers of protection to reduce risk.”

Does a booster make a difference?

“Ensure your vaccinations are up to date,” stated the science table. “It provides significant additional protection against serious illness.”

Hamilton data shows the staggering difference COVID shots make. The unvaccinated have a hospitalization rate of 434.1 per 100,000 population compared to 75.8 for those with three shots. The risk of being admitted to the intensive care unit is 12 times higher for the unvaccinated than the boosted.

But coverage remains low, with fewer than 50 per cent of Hamiltonians age 18 to 39 boosted. Coverage for kids is even worse, with only 17 per cent of those age 12 to 17 having three shots.

“New vaccines targeted to emerging variants could be available this fall, but as there’s a wave starting, it makes sense to get the vaccines you are eligible for now,” stated the science table. “If you are age 60 or over, or immunocompromised, and haven’t received your 4th dose, now is the time.”

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