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'COVID-19 continues to be with us': Waterloo Region shifting pandemic response as restrictions lift

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Officials in Waterloo Region held their final scheduled COVID-19 update on Friday as the area shifts its response to the pandemic.

The area’s medical officer of health, Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, said the region is transitioning to a new way of managing COVID-19, but it doesn’t mean the pandemic is over.

“COVID-19 continues to be with us and will likely present future challenges,” Dr. Wang said Friday. “We can help our community heal and better weather future challenges by continuing to work together as we have to date.”

Regional officials have held regular COVID-19 updates for about two years. Dr. Wang said they may hold briefings in the future, if needed.

Starting Monday, nearly all COVID-19 restrictions in the province will lift, including mask mandates in most indoor settings. Masks will still be required in health-care settings, long-term care homes and on public transit.

Dr. Wang encouraged people to stay up-to-date on vaccines, stay home when sick, optimizing indoor ventilation and wearing masks in high-risk settings.

“I also recommend, as we transition from the winter respiratory season to spring and summer, that we ease our personal protective measures and resume our activities in a gradual manner,” Dr. Wang said.

COVID-19 indicators are much lower than they were at the peak of the Omicron wave, Dr. Wang said, but they have started to plateau.

“Omicron continues to circulate,” Dr. Wang said.

She added there may be intermittent COVID-19 waves in the future, but said residents and health-care settings now have more tools and knowledge about how to handle these waves.

Outbreaks in high-risk settings are considered low and stable.

Wastewater data up until March 13 shows the BA.1 subvariant of COVID-19 is still the primary subvariant in Waterloo Region, with a moderate amount of BA.2. Provincial health officials have said the more-transmissible BA.2 subvariant could soon be the dominant variant in Ontario. The Ontario Science Table released modelling data on Thursday, saying hospitalizations and other indicators will likely rise over the next few weeks as restrictions lift.

COVID-19 risk depends on the number of close contacts, vaccination status, and potential spread of the BA.2 subvariant, Dr. Wang said.

Residents are encouraged to get a booster shot even if they have already been infected with COVID-19.

The region has organized vaccine clinics at local schools to encourage vaccination in youth.

The mobile vaccine bus will also return in April, bringing vaccines to community members to increase accessibility.

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