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Nov. 28, 2020 | Saturday
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Niagara-on-the-Lake sees highest COVID-19 rate in region
File photo/Rene Bertschi

Niagara-on-the-Lake now has more active COVID-19 cases per capita than any other municipality in Niagara Region.

As of July 29, Niagara Region public health statistics indicate there are at least nine active cases of COVID-19 in NOTL — or 4.8 cases per 10,000 people.

For a few weeks, NOTL had very few active cases. In total, there have been 31 COVID-19 cases to date.

The numbers are likely rising due to the region’s move to Stage 3 of the pandemic recovery and because people are getting “complacent,” said Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji.

“Our impression is that people are definitely becoming more complacent,” Hirji said in an interview.

“I think we had a good run where we had very few cases, we were averaging about two cases per day, often seeing days with zero cases. And I think it has given people a sense that we had gotten past COVID … And I think we’re starting to see numbers go up, because that complacency has set in.”

He said moving into Stage 3 of recovery means more public interaction, which is allowing the virus to spread.

“(Stage 3) creates more opportunity for people to interact, and therefore for infection to spread more.”

While the numbers are still fairly good, Hirji said it’s not time for people to let down their guard.

“Given that we are opening up more, it’s even more important that we’re practising those measures that keep the numbers down — that we’re keeping two metres distance at all times, we’re washing our hands, we’re wearing face covering, we’re making sure we’re watching our health. If we get symptoms, we get tested, because that’s more important now to keep ourselves from getting COVID-19 and spreading it.”

“We’re relying on that now, rather than basically preventing interaction through having businesses and services closed. We’re leaning much more on our own personal behaviours now.”

Face masks are mandatory indoors in Niagara Region as of this Friday.

Hirji said there’s not enough information to say whether tourism played a part in the case count in NOTL.

“We can’t say for sure that there’s no tourism relationship here. Those initial cases, we don’t know where they got infection from. They’re what we classify as community transmission. It’s theoretically possible it could have been infected tourists coming down and possibly spreading (the virus).”

“We don’t have any information saying that one way or the other.”

He did say that if the U.S. border were to open to tourists, it would present a “significantly greater risk.”

“Because you’d now be allowing people coming from areas where there is much more COVID-19 going around, potentially coming in tourists and bringing that infection (with) them.”

He said his main concern with tourism is if people are congregating in large groups.

“Our first line of defence to stop the spread of COVID-19 right now is keeping physical distance from others. And, of course, if you have a large number of people that becomes very difficult, if they’re all crowding into one place,” Hirji said.

“And if tourists are contributing to that, that would certainly be a concern. I’m not on the ground in Niagara-on-the-Lake to observe in this case. But if you’re seeing some of that, I think those would be the kinds of things that I would be most concerned about.”

Most of NOTL’s cases are the result of close contact community spread, he said, adding the region is working hard to trace those contacts.

“We’re figuring out who their close contacts are to figure out, is there a source of infection in that group, but secondary, who are the people that they may now pass the infection on to, and we’ll actually typically isolate all of those people as well as the person who actually has COVID-19 in the anticipation that some of those close contacts will get infection.”

He said when it comes to deciding whether to close things down again, the province is looking at data trends, which haven’t looked as good in the last week or two in Niagara.

“So that’s something I think we should be concerned about,” he said.

“We’re not at any kind of critical stage yet. But if we keep on the trend that we’ve been over for the last couple of weeks that potentially could change.”

He said, more positively, that the province is also looking at how well public health agencies are able to track cases and follow up with contacts in a timely manner.

Right now about 90 per cent of cases in Niagara are being addressed within 24 hours, he said.

He recommends people stay vigilant in preventing the spread.

“We definitely saw what happened in the U.S. when they ignored the early trends and where they’ve ended up as a result, and we absolutely don’t want that to happen here,” he said.

The increase in Niagara cases should be seen “as a big wake up call that now is the time for us to redouble our efforts to shed any complacency we have.”

Lord Mayor Betty Disero echoed Hirji’s comments, that people need to be vigilant about limiting the spread and protecting themselves.

“I just want (people) to stay diligent and know that we have to keep up what we’re doing until it’s over, because we don’t want the numbers to escalate.”

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