KITCHENER -- Health officials in Region of Waterloo are warning of the risk of the Delta variant as case counts start to climb locally.

"We are concerned that our trends are not improving as they have in other communities in Ontario because of the Delta variant," Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Julie Emili said at the region's COVID-19 briefing on Friday morning.

The Delta variant, also known as B.1.617, was first detected in India.

Dr. Emili said the region's weekly incidence rate has risen to 57 cases per 100,000 people.

There are currently 19 confirmed cases of the Delta variant in the region, but Dr. Emili said officials expect to see more confirmed in the coming days.

"All residents are advised that the Delta variant is circulating in our community," she said. "Like other variants, the Delta variant is more transmissible and may cause more severe illness."

Dr. Emili said the variant is linked to an outbreak at a congregate setting, where officials have reported a "large number of cases over a short period of time when compared to other outbreaks."

Waterloo Region was identified by the province as a Delta variant hot spot on Thursday. Accelerated second doses will be available in those regions, and people who were vaccinated on or before May 9 will be able to book an earlier second dose appointment starting on Monday.

SPREADING IN THE COMMUNITY

Dr. Emili said COVID-19 spread is largely due to close contacts.

Overall in Waterloo Region, close contact transmission has accounted for 46 per cent of transmission. However, since April 1, close contact transmission has accounted for 55 per cent of spread.

"This is in part due to the high transmissibility of the variants, especially within households, but also in part due to social gatherings for people from multiple households are having close contact interactions," Dr. Emili said.

She added that a lot of recent spread has been attributed to gatherings over Mother's Day and the May long weekend.

Dr. Emili encouraged people to continue following all public health measures as Ontario moves into Step 1 on Friday.

"We all have a role to play to slow the spread of COVID-19," she said. "Limit close contacts by maintaining physical distance, wearing a face covering and gathering outside. When it's your turn, get vaccinated. Focus on the horizon. Doing these things now will help support our ability to control the variants in the future. The fewer cases there are, the harder it is for variants to spread."

'SHARP INCREASE' IN HOSPITALIZATIONS

Lee Fairclough, the president of St. Mary's General Hospital, said there are "troubling trends" at local hospitals.

Speaking at the COVID-19 briefing, Fairclough said hospitalizations had dropped down to as few as five patients at St. Mary's Hospital at the start of June, but have since jumped back up.

"Over the course of the last week, we have now jumped up to 17 new admissions for COVID and, in addition to that, we continue to care for another 14 that were originally admitted for COVID that still required COVID care," she said. "That is quite a sharp increase."

Fairclough added these are all local admissions and there are no patient transfers from out-of-region or out-of-province hospitals.

MOVING INTO STEP 1

Outdoor dining and non-essential retail was able to open, with restrictions, at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

Patios can seat up to four people per table and non-essential stores can open at 15 per cent capacity.

Dr. Emili said Step 1 is focused mainly on lifting restrictions outdoors, which does have a lower transmission risk than indoor gatherings.

She continued to encourage people to follow public health gatherings and limiting close contacts as much as possible.