Rural regions so far avoiding second wave, but ‘we can’t let our guard down’

Many rural areas in Southwestern Ontario have managed to stave off the COVID-19 second wave, but health officials warn that could change if residents become too complacent.

Health units in Huron-Perth, Grey-Bruce, Chatham-Kent, Lambton and Oxford and Elgin each reported fewer than 15 new cases of COVID-19 in September, in contrast to the sharp spikes seen in many of the province’s urban centres.

The number of new COVID-19 cases in rural Southwestern Ontario’s health units in September were:

By comparison, the Middlesex-London Health Unit logged 148 new COVID-19 infections last month, with the area’s top doctor declaring London is in its second wave.

“I think that we’re doing quite well in comparison to the rest of the province,” said Crystal Usher, an epidemiologist at Southwestern Public Health (SPH), which covers St. Thomas, Woodstock and Oxford and Elgin counties. “If people become complacent, we may see an increase in case numbers.”

SPH uses modelling data and current case counts to assess the community’s risk as either high, medium, low, or very low. Last week, the risk was very low, bolstered by no new cases that week.

Usher said the low number of new coronavirus infections could be attributed to a big push on swift contact tracing and case management, along with a high level of compliance with public health guidelines among locals.

“The people within our community have been practicing physical distancing and been diligent with washing their hands, and wearing face coverings,” she said.

Grey-Bruce Public Health is one among only five public health regions in the province with no deaths so far.

Meanwhile, Huron-Perth Public Health has tallied the fewest cumulative COVID-19 cases of all of Southwestern Ontario’s health units with 129, only two of which are active as of Thursday.

The area’s medical officer of health, Miriam Klassen, said the avoidance of a second wave in Huron-Perth is likely because of the “good fortune” of being in a less densely populated area that isn’t close to any borders.

She also credits the region’s Ontario Health Team – it connects hospitals, primary care and long-term care partners for better communication – and a sense of community in smaller towns as factors working in the area’s favour.

“Being a smaller and connected community … people have worked together very well to follow the public health measures,” Klassen said.

But with Thanksgiving around the corner, and families considering gatherings or visiting others, there is a risk of imported cases hitting Southwestern Ontario’s rural pockets and then spreading.

“This virus doesn’t know borders,” Klassen said. “If it’s introduced, it can spread very easily.”

Gatherings are restricted to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors. Klassen is reminding residents that those not within the same social circle must maintain a two-metre distance and should avoid sharing food and drinks.

She said just because there are not many new cases in Huron-Perth, people shouldn’t be complacent or think the virus isn’t circulating.

“People really do have to be vigilant,” Klassen said. “We can’t let our guard down.”

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