At least 70 COVID cases are now believed to have originated at the Praise Fellowship Church in Chatham.
Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Colby says late last week 24 cases are directly tied to the Park Avenue place of worship and about double that are indirect cases of the outbreak. Chatham-Kent had 107 active cases to start October.
The municipality also recorded its 20th COVID death last week after an unvaccinated woman in her 50s passed away. When asked whether the death was connected to Praise Fellowship Colby tiptoed around the answer.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” the doctor said, explaining answering could reveal her identity.
“That’s the cost of living in a small community… If we were in Toronto I’d probably be able to say yes to that question,” says Colby.
The outbreak has rocketed Chatham-Kent to the top of the provincial chart in case rate per 100,000 people with 23.51. Neighbouring Lambton County is second at 15.27 cases per 100,000.
The high numbers coincide with the pair’s status at the bottom of the provincial vaccination charts. There’s 82 per cent of residents aged 12 plus with one shot and 76 per cent fully vaccinated. Both tallies are dead last in Ontario.
Lambton has an identical first dose percentage and 77 per cent with both shots.
“I don’t know what else we can really do,” says Colby last week. “We’re doing everything we can both from a public relations point of view, an information provision point of view and a convenience point of view to bring vaccines to them.”
While vaccine education and appealing to people’s sense of personal and community safety may have stalled, the numbers have been going up following the introduction of Ontario’s vaccine passport.
“When the province said that you’re going to need vaccination to get into restaurants, movies, theatres, sporting events, there were lots of people that that made the decision for them,” says Colby.
“If it takes more policy levers to do that then I’m certainly open to that. But we really need to convince people that so far have been reluctant that this is a good thing,” he adds.
The mandate approach might be best evident at the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance. President and CEO Lori Marshall says since the hospital told all employees to get vaccinated by October 31 or find another job the staff vaccination rate jumped 7.5 percentage points, from 87.8 per cent to just more than 95 currently.
As for the remaining five per cent, “We are continuing to work with those individuals who have either declined, are providing a request for medical exemption or human rights exemption,” says Marshall.
Colby says the first week of the vaccine passport have gone well but public health and the municipality are remaining vigilant.
“We’re going to enforce any violations of the law, without question. It boggles my imagination that any kind of business would be proud of the fact that they’re endangering people’s lives,” he says of any establishment considering not enforcing the rules.
“Roman statesman Cicero said that the safety of the people shall be the highest law. I’m grateful that the vast majority of people in Ontario are very supportive of the vaccine certification program as a way to keep everyone healthy,” says Colby.
With Thanksgiving ahead Colby says take precautions to protect your family and friends. “If weather is good moving family dinners outside, especially if you have guests in your house, would be an excellent strategy… Being outside is very safe… we’ve got a lovely late summer, early fall weather here, get outside and enjoy it.”
He adds “Many people have expressed to me that they are saying that only vaccinated people are welcome in their house. That’s a personal decision that people have to make but it certainly would increase the safety for all concerned.”
Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent