November was the worst month of the pandemic for the Grey-Bruce health region, an area that until then had largely avoided the spikes in COVID-19 cases that had plagued much of the province.
Grey-Bruce Public Health logged 159 new infections last month – nearly doubling its case count – bringing the total to 337 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Nov. 30.
The region continues to defy the odds and has had zero deaths nine months into the pandemic.
“It has been the worst month, but nothing that is not manageable so far,” said Ian Arra, medical officer of health for Grey-Bruce. “The underlining principle to all these cases is COVID fatigue.”
In early November, about half the cases in Grey-Bruce were linked to travel within health regions, he said.
Most of these cases were either from locals visiting family and friends in other regions or “hot spots” and contracting COVID-19. A smaller portion was from out-of-towners visiting those who live in Grey and Bruce counties.
The other half of cases were then attributed to spread within households to friends and family.
“People lower their guards and the pandemic is there,” Arra said. “As soon as people relax, the virus will transmit.”
As the month continued, Arra said the second category – locally transmitted cases between friends and families – rose in the region. Along with that, so did the number of close contacts of cases.
Grey-Bruce Public Health publicly posts the number of high-risk close contacts it is currently working with. As of Nov. 30, that number sat at 216, with 50 active cases.
“In March and April, we used to see with each case two or three close contacts,” Arra said. “In November, we saw an average of about 10, maybe more.”
Another factor in November’s spike is cases among Mennonite and Amish communities.
Arra said the large size of Amish and Mennonite families often leads to more transmission within one household but stressed it would be wrong to “point the finger” at these communities, adding they have been working well with the health unit.
Meanwhile, schools and workplaces in his region have remained mostly free of COVID-19 transmission. Although there have been cases in schools, there have been zero outbreaks.
“Schools are safe, so kids, who are less reliable than adults, by following the recommendations, are being safe,” he said. “So, there is no excuse for any of us.”
In long-term care settings, Grey-Bruce has seen few outbreaks; although some cases have been detected, Arra said there has been only one instance of secondary transmission occurring, which was back in March.
One long-term care home is currently considered in outbreak, with one positive staff case.
As of Dec. 1, the area doesn't have any people being treated in hospital for COVID-19. Arra said he is beginning to see the region buck the second-wave trend of skyrocketing case counts.
“We see the numbers right now in Grey Bruce levelling, they have not kept going up,” he said.
Mid-month, Bruce Power launched Be A Light: Beating COVID-19 Together, a $1 million campaign to boost public health communication and provide more resources to the community.
Arra said that campaign – with increased messaging on billboards, radio ads, TV stations and local papers – helped shift public attitudes about following public health guidelines to fight against COVID-19.
“Within one week, not surprisingly, there was a change in the level of concern from the public and that really is what we need."
Grey-Bruce is in the yellow-protect zone of the province’s COVID-19 restriction framework, but Arra said if residents continue to follow public health protocols like hand washing, proper mask-wearing, and avoiding unnecessary gatherings, that could change before the holidays.
“Everyone asks for a white Christmas, but we will be asking for a green one,” Arra said, referencing the lowest coloured tier on the restriction framework.
Even with a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, Arra said residents must stay vigilant in safeguarding against the novel coronavirus.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel … it is around the corner,” he said. “We need to double down.”
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press