Local health leaders are sounding the alarm over a sharp increase in COVID-19 infections and what could become a repeat of last year’s holiday surge.
Along with the COVID deaths of two more area seniors, the health unit’s manager of epidemiology on Thursday reported a large jump in the region’s weekly infection rate. As of that morning, Windsor-Essex had the third-highest seven-day rate in Ontario with 123 cases per 100,000 people, up from 74 cases per 100,000 people the week before.
“We are seeing an explosion of cases,” said Ramsey D’Souza during a virtual presentation from the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.
It’s possible, he said, this holiday season could result in a repeat of the astronomically high case counts reported at the end of 2020 and into the beginning of this year. Then, the region saw more than 2,000 active COVID-19 cases, with hundreds of new infections reported each day as well as multiple deaths. On one day in January, the health unit reported 16-related COVID deaths, many of them residents of long-term care and retirement homes.
Unlike at the start of 2021, businesses are now open and social gatherings and large weddings are permitted — things that promote person-to-person interaction and can lead to increased disease transmission, D’Souza said.
“In the end, it does fall on all of us as a community to follow the (public health) measures and be vigilant with our practices,” including physical distancing, frequent hand-washing, and staying home when sick.
The region’s COVID-19 test positivity rate has also shot up from last week to the fourth-highest in the province, climbing from nearly five per cent to about seven per cent. Also on the rise are COVID-related hospitalizations and school dismissals, with an average of 15 local school-aged kids testing positive every day.
“We are very concerned about the rates going up and equalling or surpassing previous rates,” said acting medical officer of health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai. “We have an increase in disease activity, and the burden of disease is probably causing some additional strain on the health-care system.”
Nesathurai said he expects the vaccine coverage in Windsor-Essex will make a difference in infection prevention, “but we still have a long way to go to bring this under control.” He again encouraged eligible residents who have not yet received a first or second COVID-19 vaccine to roll up their sleeves, particularly those in their 50s and 60s.
Although the local health unit has the ability to reintroduce restrictions to curb disease spread — “some levers to pull,” Nesathurai said — the top doctor would like to see the provincial government make COVID-19 vaccines a requirement for school-aged children by adding it to the Immunization of School Pupils Act. Introduced in 1990, the act mandates immunizations against polio, Diptheria, tetanus, pertussis, chickenpox, measles, mumps, rubella, and more for children attending school in Ontario.
The local board of health has passed a resolution to formally request that the province make that move, “which would be one more step in trying to get the vaccination rates higher,” Nesathurai said.
More than 12 per cent of children ages five to 11 have received their first COVID-19 vaccine since the jab rollout for that age group began last week. Overall, 77.2 per cent of local residents of all ages have received at least one shot, and 73.5 per cent are fully vaccinated.