UPDATE: Premier Doug Ford announced Friday he was moving Niagara into the Red Zone, effective Monday.
As coronavirus cases rise in the region and in town, Niagara’s acting medical officer of health was expecting an announcement Friday that would move Niagara from orange to the red zone of COVID restrictions.
Dr. Mustafa Hirji says he doesn’t expect any advance notice of the decision, which was expected to be made by the provincial cabinet Friday morning, followed by a public announcement in the afternoon.
That would mean increased provincial restrictions to local businesses, among them a reduction to only 10 people allowed indoors at restaurants, bars and event spaces.
Cases in the region spiked over the weekend, with 65 new cases Saturday, 71 on Sunday, a dip to 35 on Monday and another big jump on Tuesday, with 62 new cases reported.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, which has seen numbers creeping up slowly, the total number of cases had climbed to 71 by Tuesday. Last Tuesday the number of cases in town was 63, making this the biggest jump in the space of a week.
Hirji says the impact on hospital capacity, with hospitalizations tending to increase two to four weeks after cases increase, may not become apparent for a few weeks.
However, there is a concern about the strain on resources for contact training, he says.
“Our ability to do timely contact tracing is now overwhelmed. For close to 30 per cent of cases from this weekend, we have not yet been able to follow up in detail. This means that on an ongoing basis, we will have less data to understand how infection is spreading in our community, so that we can address it. We are also more likely to miss contacts and not identify all chains of infection, which will mean more persons will continue to spread infections,” says Hirji.
“We unfortunately don’t see a clear single cause for these infections,” he adds.
“About 45 per cent are in outbreaks in long-term care homes, retirement homes, hospitals, and other congregate settings,” he reported Monday.
“For the other 55 per cent, many are those whom we have not yet been able to do follow-up, so we don’t know. Where we do know, spread within households is the largest group. Spread to friends, co-workers, and extended family are also significant.”
Young people “remain the plurality of infections, however, there are large numbers of infections across all age groups, except for children,” he says.
Hirji says the transmission is both from individuals from the Niagara area going to Toronto to see family and friends, and bringing it back with them, and from people coming here, not to shop, but to see family and friends.
Regarding the increase in December cases in NOTL, he says, there is no particular pattern.
“Some are linked to health care outbreaks outside of NOTL, and others were infected from close contacts in their households, extended family, co-workers, and friends.”
As for more Section 22 regional restrictions that would be on top of those imposed by the Province, Hirji says, “we are looking for areas of focused risk where we could bring in additional measures. At present, we have not identified areas conducive to that.”
COVID-19 spreads primarily when people have social interactions, he says. “Reducing social interactions by limiting it to just households is how we will stop the spread of COVID-19. The best way to achieve that is for individuals to choose to limit their social interaction to just their households, to limit opportunity for infection to spread more widely. This is particularly important as we head into the holiday season.” Restrictions on businesses, he adds, “are usually just ways to try and break up such social interaction in public places.”
Lord Mayor Betty Disero says regional councillors were given an update by Hirji at a virtual meeting last Friday, and warned of the likelihood of the region moving into the red zone, with accompanying restrictions.
Town staff are looking at differences in the restrictions, she says, and will be ready to communicate changes if they’re announced Friday, as expected.
Red zones will impact town facilities, such as the arenas and community centre, with further details expected from staff.
There was also discussion at the regional meeting about the vaccine that has arrived in Canada, with details of distribution being rolled out by the Province.
The Pfizer vaccine is expected to be delivered to 21 to 23 hospitals in the province with adequate freezer space, and although St. Catharines has sufficient capacity to qualify, it wasn’t known at press time whether St. Catharines was being considered as a destination for the vaccine. Disero said Monday she expects that announcement to come this week.
During a meeting last week with Ontario mayors, municipalities were told that by April there should be more vaccines, and different kinds of vaccines approved,” to take us to the end of 2021 and into 2022, when we should have enough for everyone who wants one.”