The number of COVID-19 cases on the rise and a lockdown imminent, the region is shifting away from an education-first approach in enforcing restrictions designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Public health officials are calling on residents to avoid gatherings over Christmas and the rest of the holidays, getting a jump on the limitations that come into force on Boxing Day.
“We need to act now,” said medical officer of health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang during the region’s pandemic briefing Tuesday.
It’s a message that reinforces an open letter signed by Wang and the medical officers of other jurisdictions that stresses the importance of avoiding gatherings.
At midweek, there were 598 active cases of COVID-19, 130 more than a week earlier, bringing the cumulative total to 5,193. The number of new cases each day this month now routinely pass the high-water mark of 71 last spring. Public health officials are currently monitoring outbreaks at 30 locations, including nine long-term care and retirement homes. There have now been 147 fatalities related to the pandemic, 10 more in the past week.
“We are headed in the wrong direction,” she said, adding “we cannot wait until the province-wide lockdown begins. Before we reduce our social interactions, we must avoid social gatherings under all circumstances, including holiday celebrations, workplace end-of-year celebrations, playdates, birthday parties, dinner parties, etc. Even with close family, friends or people that you trust.”
Wang noted rapid increases in the number of cases are already being reflected in rising hospitalization numbers, with ICU beds reaching capacity.
The numbers have forced the region’s three hospitals – Grand River, St. Mary’s General and Cambridge Memorial – to make adjustments.
“We have reduced our surgeries to be able to create space, and to deal with some of the outbreaks that we’ve been dealing with internally,” said Grand River Hospital president Ron Gagnon, noting GRH had 19 people admitted with COVID-19.
“Our ICU has been teetering on maximum capacity to the point where we’ve actually established plans now of where we would be able to encroach into to provide more capacity, to provide ventilation for people who need it,” he said, predicting the anticipated rise of cases is guaranteed to happen even if people behave over the few days before the lockdown begins.
Regional Chair Karen Redman issued a warning to those planning to ignore the measures in place.
“I would like to say that the region and its enforcement partners, the Waterloo Regional Police Service, municipal bylaw and public health inspectors, will continue to educate and enforce bylaws. This includes fines where necessary for as long as necessary to keep people safe over the holidays throughout the province-wide shutdown and beyond.”
Rigid enforcement is the policy now.
“We have every intention of following through with these. They’re very serious. And it’s one of the reasons why, in my comments, I say, we will continue to use education and enforcement by our bylaw officers, our public health inspectors of Waterloo Regional Police, for as long as it takes until we’re out the other end.”
The region has issued numerous fines for violations of the local face covering bylaw and multiple charges for failing to comply with the Reopening of Ontario Act. Charges have ranged from nail salons opening when not being essential and restaurants failing to accommodate social distancing, as well as to private house parties.