Rising COVID-19 infections on radar of Oxford-Elgin public health boss

·3 min read

COVID-19 cases have fallen off in most of Southwestern Ontario, but the death toll and the number of people infected have risen sharply recently in a largely rural two-county area near London.

Joyce Lock, medical officer of health for Elgin and Oxford counties, says added public health restrictions are unlikely but possible if the numbers keep rising.

"We're watching this very carefully," she said Friday. "If our numbers continue to go up and up, and in particular, if our health systems' partners are being overwhelmed, then we may have to introduce additional public health measures."

Southwestern Public Health has reported eight COVID-related deaths in the two counties over the last month, and says the area has 121 active cases, including 32 new ones reported Friday.

The new cases are nearly triple the number reported in Middlesex-London, an area with a much larger population.

"We don't have a particular cause for why our cases are going up," Lock said.

"(But) we did expect that once the weather got colder and people went indoors, the school year got into swing, along with the relaxed public health measures, that we would likely see cases go up. So, it's not totally unexpected."

Active COVID-19 cases in the two counties, which includes St. Thomas and Woodstock, tripled from 26 in early September to 79 by the end of last month. The region recorded another 42 cases in the last week alone.

Lock said young people make up the bulk of recent cases, with people under age 19 accounting for more than a quarter.

"Of course, everybody under the age of 12 is still not vaccinated so that, too, is not completely unexpected," she said. "We have noticed recently that quite a few of our cases don't know where they got it from, which does speak to the fact that COVID is circulating in our community."

With no recent outbreaks in the region, Lock said, the active cases are distributed equally across Elgin and Oxford counties.

Small-town Aylmer, a frequent flashpoint in Southwestern Ontario's anti-restrictions and anti-vaccination movements, accounts for roughly one-quarter of the active cases in the two-county region, a number even higher than in Woodstock, a city roughly six times as large.

Nine COVID-related deaths have been reported in the region in the last six weeks — most in the last month, including three this week. The deaths were in people ranging in age from their 60s to their 80s, all of whom had been hospitalized. About half contracted COVID in the community rather than from outbreaks, public health officials note.

"People should be aware that, for vulnerable individuals, there is a chance of a fatal outcome," Lock said. "The best way to protect our vulnerable individuals is for them to get vaccinated and for their loved ones who are around them to be vaccinated."

Since the pandemic began, Southwestern Public Health has reported 94 COVID-related deaths.

Ontario reported 563 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, and five more deaths, the first time in nearly a month that the daily new case count has risen above 500.

The seven-day average of new cases has been on the rise in the past few days, after falling since an early September fourth-wave peak.

— With file by Canadian Press

cleon@postmedia.com

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Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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