Niagara-on-the-Lake has had 21 known cases of COVID-19, with five that remain active.
Of those 21 cases, nine are considered travel-related.
Niagara Region Public Health statistics released Thursday, May 21, show Niagara-on-the-Lake has the fourth-highest rate of COVID-19 infection in the region, with 11.1 infections per 10,000 residents.
In addition to the nine that are known to be returning travellers, seven are from close contact and five from community spread.
Close contact cases include those contracted in hospital or a retirement or long-term care home, and, as Dr. Mustafa Hirji, acting medical officer of health for the Niagara Region, points out, that could include NOTL residents who work in a another municipality, in a facility with an outbreak.
The numbers don’t identify where the virus was contracted, just where those with the virus live, he says.
Close contact cases also include someone who was infected by a person living in the same household.
Even those few people in NOTL who are considered to have been infected through community spread didn’t necessarily get it from someone in NOTL, he pointed out.
“They could been having coffee in St. Catharines, gone to work in Thorold and then done some grocery shopping in Niagara Falls on the way home,” he says, and they might not have any idea where they contracted it.
Welland has the highest number with a total of 206 cases, or 37 per 10,000 people; Pelham, which borders Welland, is second, with 17.8 per 10,000, and Niagara Falls third, with 17.2 per 10,000.
Both Welland and Niagara Falls have had outbreaks in retirement or long-term care homes.
The good news in NOTL is the low community spread numbers, which show residents who have travelled self-isolated when they returned, says Lord Mayor Betty Disero.
“They didn’t pass it on,” she says, crediting residents such as Allan Bisback and others who did grocery shopping for returning travellers.
“Allan must have been shopping for about 20 people,” she says. “He and those who were assisting others were absolutely helpful” in curbing the spread of the virus.
Hirji agrees the numbers show if there were returning travellers who passed it on to others, it would have been a very small number, hidden in the few who got it through community spread, but don’t know where or from whom.
“There are limitations of what we can interpret from the data,” he says. “This represents the cases we know about, and not where they were exposed to it.”
The main takeaway from the statistics, he says, “is that people in every municipality have been infected, and it’s still out there. We still have a small number of cases every day. As businesses are opening up, and we have the potential for interacting, we have the potential for the virus to spread.”
“The vigilance of the people of NOTL has been working,” says Disero. “We have to be cautious about doing what needs to be done until all our active cases are over, and we have no new cases. We have to be smart about what we’re doing, to not have a turn of events and more new cases,” she says.
“I’m proud of everyone. Businesses, residents — everyone in town — has helped to limit the spread of the COVID-19 in the community.”
There are only five active cases remaining in NOTL, she says, “and I’m hoping there will be good outcomes for all of them.”
With essential businesses opening up and more visitors expected, Disero asks residents to continue doing their best to be safe by staying home as much as possible, wearing a cloth mask when out in public, washing their hands and refraining from touching their faces.
“Stay vigilant and we’ll get through it,” she says.
She also encourages residents to “shop local,” for groceries and essentials, and to check out Queen Street stores when the street is not busy with tourists.
Ordering take-out food from restaurants is good any day of the week, and shopping downtown from Monday to Friday will be welcomed by retailers, who will be grateful for local support, especially when the streets are not crowded with tourists, she says.
Disero had been lobbying the Region to break down cases by municipality for several weeks, and now, with that information, “we’ll be able to monitor the numbers in the community.”
It will be important to watch the numbers in coming weeks, and be prepared to deal with any outbreaks, she added.
“If the numbers start o climb, we’ll have to figure out what to do. But some of it may not be in our control.”
The Premier has said he will crack down and possibly rescind decisions on reopenings, if the numbers increase across the province.
As of Thursday, West Lincoln’s rate was the lowest, at 5.1 per 10,000. Six communities have an infection rate of below 7 per 10,000 residents.
Only Niagara Falls, 60 percent of cases are tied to healthcare facilities.
“Part of the reason why Pelham has a higher cumulative proportion of cases is that it had proportionally more international travel-related cases in the early weeks of local COVID-19 transmission,” public health spokesperson Kerri Stoakely told the Voice of Pelham, a weekly newspaper in that community.
“Beyond that it is likely due to statistical variation as we have not seen any large clusters of linked infections.”
Yet the health department’s own numbers don’t support Stoakley’s assertion.
In fact, the number of travel-related cases in Pelham is less than half of the non-travel-related cases.
Niagara-on-the-Lake, with similar demographics to Pelham, has by far a proportionately greater number of travel-related cases than does Pelham. And Fort Erie turns the tables entirely, with 6.4 cases per 10,000, for a total of 21, and more than double the number of travel-related versus non-travel-related infections.
In other Niagara towns, a relatively larger percentage of outbreaks are categorized by public health as having occurred in healthcare facilities.
From the beginning of the outbreak, despite pressure elected officials across the region, Hirji has refused to release COVID-19 statistics per municipality, citing privacy reasons. The small numbers in most municipalities might make it possible to identify individuals, he said. About two weeks ago, he said cases might be getting to the threshold where he would be willing to release that information.
Niagara crossed that threshold Wednesday, the day Wainfleet reached five cases.
He is not breaking down the numbers of deaths per municipality. Hirji says he may in coming weeks consider releasing more numbers related to deaths, such as those in retirement homes, long-term care homes, hospitals, and even by age group, “in the interest of transparency.”
He said that is still under discussion, but he doesn’t expect to release numbers per municipality.
Although the numbers represent positive tests, not actuals, Hirji says he is confident they are a realistic indication of “the big picture.”
If people started showing up at the hospitals and in intensive care units, there might be some concern that the numbers are not accurate, “but we’re not seeing that.”
He stressed that the best advice now is for people who are sick with COVID-19 symptoms to reach out to assessment centres or their physicians for advice about whether to be tested.
With sufficient capacity for testing now available, he says, anyone who has symptoms can be tested.
“We really do want to find any cases that are out there.”
With files from The Voice of Pelham