Social gatherings are emerging as the focal point of the spread of the novel coronavirus in Niagara, the region’s acting medical officer of health has said.
Dr Mustafa Hirji said on Monday that while health care facilities, especially long-term care homes, were once where most local cases were generated, this is no longer the case.
Community epidemics in non-medical facilities, often fueled by social gatherings large and small, are now the site of many local cases.
This change is in part the expected result of controlling most outbreaks in long-term care homes and increasing economic and community activity permitted under the current phase of economic reopening of the Ontario.
“It could be a situation where someone wants to go to a social gathering, ignores minor symptoms, and spreads the virus,” Hirji said.
Niagara saw five new COVID-19 confirmed on Monday, bringing the region’s historic total to 901. Of these, 46 are active cases and at least 64 Niagara residents with the virus have died.
While more than half of the cases from July 26 to August 1 involve infections with no known source, Hirji said the five cases on Monday and six on Sunday were linked to previous community outbreaks.
There are currently six outbreaks in Niagara, only two of which are long-term care homes. The other four are all outbreaks in non-medical facilities, which include worshipers’ living environments, as well as unconfined outbreaks resulting from certain social events like outings to backyard parties.
Although the last two days of cases have been tracked, the high number of cases from the previous week with no known source of infection indicates how the virus is spreading in Niagara, he said.
“It means that there is a virus spreading out there and these people have not been tested, so we are not catching these cases,” he said. “Then they end up spreading the virus.”
The place where people are infected in Niagara also shows the trend at work.
In the early days of the pandemic, Welland became a local epicenter of COVID-19 due to several major outbreaks in long-term care homes and retirement homes. Even after the outbreaks ended, Welland had the highest total number of cases in the region.
Niagara Falls recently overtook Welland in the total number of cases. Although there has been a large epidemic of long-term care, the recent increase in cases is linked to social activity, Hirji said.
St. Catharines, the region’s largest municipality, has the third highest number of cases.
Across the region, there has been a notable increase in the number of new cases among people aged 30 and under.
The exacerbation of the situation was the “new normal” of the higher daily number of cases in Niagara.
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In May and most of June, Niagara averaged about two new cases per day. Until July, however, that number rose to around five or more. There have been a few statistical outliers, including consecutive days of zero cases last week and a one-day count of 21 cases on July 28. But the consistent trend has been around five.
Hirji said the increase in infections linked to social gatherings reinforces the need for people with even minor symptoms related to COVID-19 to get tested, as well as to continue to practice physical distancing and robust hand washing.