Leadership of the Northwestern Health Unit says it’s still too early to say if the sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has reached the region yet, but staff are considering implementing regional restrictions to curb a potential surge of cases.

During her bi-weekly conference with regional media members, Medical Officer of Health for the NWHU, Dr. Kit Young Hoon, says local COVID-19 case counts are continuing to increase, but hospitalization numbers are remaining stable.

“As the sixth wave of COVID-19 begins in the province, the BA.2 variant is circulating locally. Our local case numbers are showing some increase in many of our communities,” said Young Hoon.

Public Health Ontario confirmed the province had entered the sixth wave of the pandemic last week, driven by the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron. Their report warned that in-person learning could be disrupted and mask mandates could return if a new COVID-19 variant emerges.

“For our region, we haven’t seen the same significant increasing trends as some southern health units have seen, but we have seen a bit of an increase in a number of our communities,” adds Young Hoon. “That could be the beginning of the sixth wave, but it’s a bit too early to know for certain.”

As of April 20, the NWHU is reporting that our 7-day average COVID-19 positivity rate is as high as 19.6 per cent, with 1 active outbreak at an unspecified long-term care home in the region.

Overall, staff are reporting a total of 151 lab-confirmed active cases of COVID-19 in their catchment area, with 13 in Dryden, 35 in Kenora and 81 in the Sioux Lookout on-reserve health hub. Young Hoon notes many cases aren’t being reported to the NWHU due to rapid antigen tests.

As of April 19, Ontario reported 1,486 hospitalizations with 206 in Intensive Care Units, with 1,218 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19. Tuesday’s hospitalization rate was the highest seen since February 15 and are up 36 per cent from two weeks ago.

To help get in front of a potential surge of cases in the NWHU’s catchment area, Young Hoon says leadership is considering implementing regional COVID-19 restrictions once again, after only one month of being mask-free in most public settings. Ontario removed its mask mandate on March 21 and plans to remove its high-risk mask mandate by April 27.

“One of the main things we’re looking at would be looking very closely at hospitalization numbers. At this point, they’re not rapidly increasing or increasing to a point where it’s overwhelming the healthcare sector,” says Young Hoon.

“But we do know a number of health agencies are coping with staffing issues because the staff or their family members may become unwell. We’re very closely looking at capacity within our health sector to best determine to what extent legal restrictions would be required.”

Young Hoon’s comments come as the Lake of the Woods District Hospital continues to navigate an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, which had grown to nine patients as of April 18. Visitor restrictions remain in place, and the hospital says they’re facing ‘critical staffing shortages’.

“We need to monitor the data closely,” says Young Hoon. “Some communities are seeing an increase in case trends, but hospitalizations have not seen the same increasing trend. But it might still be early for that.”

“It’s really challenging to know what it’s going to look like. We need to be prepared for a potential surge in the upcoming weeks.”

Overall, Young Hoon says residents are asked to continue following all existing public health measures, and even though mask mandates have ended in most settings, she’s still strong recommending all residents wear masks in indoor public settings to help keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

“It’s important that anyone who feels unwell stays home and isolates. The number of people in our region and in the province with COVID-19 is much higher than the data shows. It’s likely that when interacting in public settings, people will be exposed to the virus.”

Young Hoon suggests residents take part in lower risk activities like outdoor gatherings, and notes that guidance from the province is now directing NWHU staff to more-closely monitor, assess and address the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in high-risk settings.

Eligible individuals are now able to book their fourth dose appointment through the Northwestern Health Unitparticipating pharmacies and participating primary care settings.

Canada’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Theresa Tam, says that preliminary data shows that a fourth dose, or a second booster dose, of the vaccine can offer additional protection against infection, severe illness, hospitalization and death.