The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit says a pair of COVID-19 outbreaks in Langton and Dunnville have likely contributed to a recent surge of cases in those communities.
But health officials will not say where the outbreaks took place, how many people were infected, or whether the outbreaks are ongoing.
In defending this tight-lipped approach, acting medical officer of health Dr. Matt Strauss cited the challenge of engaging with the affected communities.
“That engagement has been difficult in the sense that trust takes some time to build,” Strauss told the local board of health on Tuesday.
“But we have been doing everything we can to build that trust and have those conversations.”
On Monday, Strauss told reporters he would not name or describe the two institutions because he did not want to “throw them under the bus.”
He would only say the facilities “are taking appropriate mitigation measures” based on advice from health officials, including contact tracing.
Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness called the health unit’s reluctance to name names “understandable and predictable.”
“There’s always an inclination to not disclose publicly to protect privacy and to not stigmatize, but also to not frighten people away from public health,” said Furness, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
Furness said while naming organizations grappling with outbreaks is a win for transparency and can be a strategy to force staff to comply with the rules, the risk of going public is “undermining public health’s ability to connect meaningfully with the community.”
“And when you have lessened trust, people hide from you,” Furness said. “They hide cases. They don’t come forward. They don’t want to be on the front page.”
Still, Furness said the severity of the COVID-19 threat means getting information out to the public about possible exposure to the virus is often worth the risk of alienating some residents.
“There’s a real public menace here of communicable disease,” he said.
“You have to make sure you don’t end up with too much secrecy, which puts people at risk.”
Death toll rises
While these two outbreaks remain shrouded in mystery, two more were declared on Wednesday — at a Home Hardware store in Dunnville and Houghton Public School near Langton.
According to a release from the Grand Erie District School Board — which discloses all school outbreaks, as does the local Catholic board — two students at Houghton have tested positive and are isolating at home.
The health unit did not release specifics about the Home Hardware outbreak, nor did health officials offer any details about an unvaccinated resident who recently died of COVID-19.
The virus has now killed three residents in the past two weeks.
There were 72 active COVID-19 cases in the region as of Wednesday and an ongoing outbreak at Haldimand War Memorial Hospital in Dunnville, where four employees and at least nine patients have tested positive.
“The hospitalizations and deaths that have occurred have not been linked to the facilities in question,” Strauss told The Spectator on Tuesday, before the most recent death was announced.
At Tuesday’s board of health meeting, Strauss revealed one local school — which he did not name — had to close recently due to COVID-19.
He did not say whether the unnamed school was one of the two “facilities” in outbreak.
Strauss said the health unit will only typically send out press releases warning the public of an outbreak in public places such as stores that do not keep visitor logs, whereas school outbreaks can be monitored internally.
“We have a list of students, we work closely with the school administrators, and we make sure proper advice goes out to all the students and their contacts,” Strauss said.
But the health unit takes a less confidential approach to COVID-19 cases at area farms. If even one migrant farm worker tests positive, the health unit declares an outbreak and issues a media release naming the farm.
Unvaccinated are vulnerable
Strauss told the health board it was not surprising to see a spike in COVID-19 infections in Langton and Dunnville, which have among the lowest vaccination rates in the riding.
“I would ask (residents) to please get vaccinated, as I am,” said Dunnville-area councillor Bernie Corbett.
“They can see from the results that (the virus) is spreading. It can be stopped if people do what I believe is right to protect themselves and protect others.”
Langton-area councillor Linda Vandendriessche encouraged residents still on the fence about vaccination to “do your proper research.”
“Talk to your own doctor. Get their advice,” she said. “What my doctors have said to me is it’s important to have vaccinations, and I believe in vaccinations. I believe in science.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator