By Sue Tiffin
Though the fall season brings with it lower temperatures, it generally also brings to mind warm gatherings. But what do those gatherings look like during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The world has been living through the novel coronavirus pandemic for seven months now, and since the beginning of the spread of the virus in Ontario, talk of a second wave greater than the first – as was experienced during the 1918 flu pandemic – has been predicted and forewarned.
Premier declares the beginning of the second wave
Last week, after announcing a record 700 new cases of COVID -19 on Monday, Ontario officially declared the second wave had arrived, with Premier Doug Ford announcing at a Sept. 28 press briefing that health officials had confirmed the second wave, which he said would be “more complicated, more complex” and “worse than the first wave we faced earlier this year.” He pleaded with Ontario residents to be mindful of public health guidelines and download the COVID-19 app, working to reduce possible projected cases, increased hospitalizations and deaths caused by the virus.
By Friday, with another 723 confirmed cases and more than 90,000 tests backlogged, stricter public health measures were imposed, including the pause of social circles, advising that all Ontarians allow close contact only with people living in their own household and maintain two metres physical distancing from everyone else. A press release issued by the province notes that individuals who live alone may consider having close contact with another household, and said the government is “finalizing additional guidance for seniors (70 and over) on how to minimize their risk of acquiring COVID-19, including for upcoming annual gatherings such as Thanksgiving and Remembrance Day.”
Guidance offered by Haliburton County health-care providers
Haliburton County saw two confirmed cases of COVID-19 last week, the first recorded since Aug. 10. Previously, 15 cases have been reported locally, with all resolved.
“Ontario has entered the second wave of COVID-19, so we all need to take additional precautions to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of illness,” local medical officer of health Dr. Lynn Noseworthy told the Echo.
“Back in the spring, we showed that we could reduce the impact of COVID-19 in Haliburton County and elsewhere by taking preventive measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19. We can do this again – and that’s extra important during the fall/winter months when people will be inside more and when there is additional risk of illnesses like influenza.”
Noseworthy pointed to the government’s most recent COVID-19 modelling, released last week, that notes Ontario is currently on an upward trajectory similar to what has been experienced in Victoria, Australia and Michigan, U.S., considered peer jurisdictions, with cases currently doubling every 10 to 12 days and forecasting suggesting that Ontario could see around 1,000 cases per day in the first half of this month, and increased patients with COVID-19 in ICU beds each day.
The modelling, said Noseworthy, “gives you a better sense of what we could see from COVID-19 going forward depending on people’s actions.”
She noted the same guidance offered by the health unit since March – that residents wash their hands frequently, avoid touching their face, practice physical distancing, wear a mask inside public places, get a a flu shot to offer protection against influenza and reduce the strain on the health-care system. Among those guidelines is that people should consider the risks before attending any social gathering and make an informed decision by finding out what COVID-19 precautions are being taken, weighing the potential risks.
“Up here in Haliburton I think we’re well-prepared,” said Dr. Norm Bottum of the Haliburton Highlands Family Health Team. “I think in general local people have been very respectful. I’ve seen a lot of people, most people, wearing masks. People sanitizing their hands, pulling sanitizer out of purses to clean. Businesses have been excellent at maintaining the volume of people going through their businesses. I think we’ve had a great response up here.”
Bottum noted that much has been reported on the spread of COVID-19 throughout the province in private gatherings.
“Private parties is where the risk is greatest,” he said. “People shouldn’t be having indoor private parties, and as we move into the fall it gets a little harder to have outdoor events, and limiting the number of people. I haven’t heard of any of those happening in a significant way in Haliburton County but I have heard of people from Haliburton going to these parties elsewhere, so whether they’ve gone to university or they’ve gone to visit friends in the city and end up at a party. People need to be careful and they need to be careful when they come back to Haliburton.”
While Ontario experienced a relatively normal summer of activity with low confirmed case reports, numbers began increasing in September.
“It’s really been just the last week to 10 days that things are really taking a sudden turn,” said Bottum. “Hopefully, people will sort of say, wait a minute, maybe things aren’t so safe, and we have those hot spots in Toronto and Peel and Ottawa. Especially if you have family coming and going from those locations, you really have to be concerned, but we know that COVID can be coming from anywhere. We’re only one visit, one party, away from spreading to other areas.”
Events known to take place throughout Haliburton County locally in the fall, including Colourfest, have largely been cancelled.
Think before gathering for Thanksgiving
“Get-togethers with family and friends are a staple at holidays like Thanksgiving,” said Noseworthy. “But during COVID-19, this year’s festivities should be done with extra care and caution.”
Noseworthy stressed the importance of sticking to small gatherings, keeping to social circle guidelines.
“Consider limiting the size of your Thanksgiving gathering to only those people in your immediate household and social circle,” said Noseworthy. “If you’re organizing a Thanksgiving get-together, be open and up front with your guests about what COVID-19 preventive measures you are taking. This can offer reassurances and avoid any surprises when guests arrive at your home. The same goes if you’re attending a Thanksgiving gathering at someone else’s place. Ask what is being done to prevent COVID-19 and make an informed decision on whether it’s safe to go.”
She recommended those who couldn’t get together with family staying connected through phone, social media and video-conferencing.
After additional public health measures were announced last week, the health unit reached out to the Echo on Oct 5 to add: “When it comes specifically to Thanksgiving celebrations, it may be best to only celebrate the holiday with those in your own immediate household. Consider ‘visiting’ loved ones by calling or video-conferencing them. Think twice about travelling over Thanksgiving, especially to areas with high rates of COVID-19 cases.
As in any other year, Noseworthy reminded residents to consider food safety.
“Ensure turkeys are cooked to a safe internal temperature and be sure to wash hands when preparing, cooking and serving food,” she said.
While in the past, Thanksgiving was generally the first weekend in which university students returned home after leaving to study, Bottum said families need to consider that choice this year.
“I think if families are gathering you have to decide, OK, are we going to do things in a socially distanced manner, which is difficult to do. Are we going to wear masks around the house, if Johnny has just come back from Montreal or U of T or something, maybe he should wear a mask in the house when he’s here,” said Bottum. “Those are decisions families are going to have to make or face the risk that if their daughter or son has brought something back from university, it could infect the whole house, or run the risk of parents or other family members not working, or ending up in hospital. These are important issues. Do they stay away for Thanksgiving? That’s a possibility.”
Bottum said Easter this year, another time when families traditionally gather for a holiday, saw a quiet weekend in Haliburton County, but noted university students had already come home prior to that, and events and businesses were largely closed.
“I think we’ve been fairly consistent here in terms of encouraging people to watch their bubble, keep their bubble under control, and the bubble is burst once a family member leaves,” said Bottum. “If they’re leaving to go to the city and going back and forth then really they need to be treated just as you’d treat an acquaintance, meeting outside, wearing masks, washing hands. It’s tough when the kids are coming back to stay in their parents’ home for a few nights because how do you isolate them? It’s definitely do-able, over the last six months I know couples that have lived on different floors where one is positive and the other negative, and isolating within the house. [But it’s] not a fun Thanksgiving weekend if you come home and your parents put you in your bedroom. It’s just like when you were a teenager. It might make more sense to stay.”
Noseworthy echoed Bottum’s guidance.
“If you have older children attending college or university who plan to return home for Thanksgiving, speak to them first about what must be done to protect everyone’s health,” she said. “This can be a difficult conversation, but an important one in light of rising COVID-19 cases. Encourage your child in post-secondary studies to stay put and not return home for Thanksgiving if they are feeling sick. Encourage them to curtail social gatherings at school and take extra COVID-19 precautions. This can make a Thanksgiving homecoming happier – and safer – for everyone!”
To trick or treat, or not?
“Unfortunately, Thanksgiving is going to be that way,” said Bottum. “Halloween, I think many communities are talking about cancelling Halloween, that’s a big risk with kids coming and going to your home. I know my home we had close to 100 kids last year. Are they going to allow it but everybody has to wear a face mask? Those are possibilities but I think a lot of people are just going to be leaving their lights off this year, even if Halloween isn’t cancelled. It’s a concern.”
Like so much in 2020 due to COVID-19, Noseworthy said, trick or treating won’t be the same as it has been in previous years.
“Having children go door-to-door for Halloween this year may not be a good idea given the risk of spreading COVID-19,” she said. “It may also be worth reconsidering handing out candy to trick-or-treaters who come to your door.”
Instead, Noseworthy said parents and caregivers should consider COVID-19, and limit Halloween celebrations to their own home.
“Consider buying treats for your children and enjoying them at home while you watch a scary movie,” she said. “Organize your own ‘Halloween-at-home’ party and get children to dress up in costume to mark the festivities. Decorate for the season and carve a pumpkin together to display outside.”
Noseworthy said the Ontario government is still working on a set of recommendations for Halloween, and the health unit plans to follow its lead. She said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released guidelines for having a safer Halloween during COVID-19, which are available at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html#halloween.
In September, Ford said in a press briefing that Halloween, and kids trick-or-treating door-to-door, made him nervous.
“Let’s play it by ear,” he said at that time.
Pandemic causing stress, burn-out for health-care workers
The Haliburton testing site has increased hours for testing, from three days to five days, with Bottum saying approximately 200 tests per week can be done here. Bottum said residents locally are waiting about four or five days for results but that health-care professionals were putting great effort into trying to identify cases.
“It is taking its toll on the health-care system,” he said. “There is that burn-out on the medical side, so people deciding to go out for an evening, for a couple of hours, could have huge repercussions on the stress and the demands on the health-care system. Doug Ford can roll out more money but he can’t roll out more people, so I want people to be respectful of the health-care system and realize that even though numbers are [low locally], we’re basically on guard 24/7 and working hard and some people are getting very stressed and burnt out as a result of this ongoing pandemic, so spending some time to consider the health-care workers would be an important move.”
Noseworthy said the rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks indicated some people had become lax in following proper COVID-19 prevention measures.
“So it’s not a matter of people doing anything new; instead, it’s time for all of us to get back to basics,” she said.
Bottum stressed the importance of being diligent in social distancing, washing hands and wearing a mask to reduce the chance of spreading or acquiring COVID-19. He said that “the numbers will pick up in Haliburton County, I have no doubt about that,” but also applauded the county’s success in keeping case counts low thus far, noting that with the province heading into the fall and winter months come factors that will potentially increase the risk that we will see more cases here than we had in the first wave, but that residents can work to reduce those risks.
“There’s a concerted effort and hopefully if we continue to be extra diligent, then we can maybe get the second wave shut down more quickly,” said Bottum.