COVID-19 now 'out in the community' after first Hamilton case without link to travel

Hamilton now has 15 cases of COVID-19 and one case which is linked to community spread.

'We are concerned that we are moving to that next phase'

The city of Hamilton has its first confirmed case of COVID-19 that is not related to travel. (Evan Aagaard/CBC)

Hamilton has 15 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus as of Tuesday and its first positive case that is not related to travel.

"What it indicates is it is out in the community," Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, said in a media briefing.

"While we're going to continue to try and contain this virus and try and limit its spread, we are concerned that we are moving to that next phase in terms of where it's at."

Calling the city's first "community transmission" Richardson explained the case means the more than 200 city staff members focused on contact tracing could not link the infected person to any recent travel.

Community spread is considered the next stage in the spread of the disease as it loses that direct connection to people who had travelled to infected areas. It makes the social distancing measures being recommended all the more necessary.

"We think the measures we are asking people to take can make a difference," Richardson said.

Paul Johnson, the director of the city's emergency operations centre, Mayor Fred Eisenberger and Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, spoke to media on Tuesday confirm the city has five new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 15. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The City of Hamilton closed all of its facilities Tuesday morning for three weeks as it continues to ramp up its response to the Coronavirus. 

Bars and restaurants across the city also closed their doors Tuesday as Ontario premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in the latest move to fight the spread of the virus.

Hamilton case trends

Hamilton will no longer go into detail on individual cases and will now describe trends.

So far, the trends include:

  • Six of the 15 infected residents involve people over the age of 60. 

  • Five of the 15 cases are also linked to cruise ship travel. 

  • Four of the 15 cases are linked to other family members.

  • All infected people are in self-isolation.

Richardson said she isn't surprised to see the numbers rise but is concerned with "just how fast will this increase."

She stressed the social distance recommendations, which include avoiding all non-essential travel, standing six feet away from people and staying away from crowds of people.

New isolation sites and drop-in centres open

So far, there are already two assessment centres in the city — a testing centre at the Hamilton Health Sciences Urgent Care Clinic at 690 Main St. W., and another at 2757 King St. E., which is the King campus of St. Joseph's Healthcare.

In a new effort to improve care for some of the city's most vulnerable people, Paul Johnson, the director of the city's emergency operations centre, announced the introduction of three isolation sites in undisclosed locations for homeless and street-involved populations.

The isolation sites can only be accessed by a referral and are meant to relieve the shelter system and will be operational Wednesday.

"When assessed, and the understanding is [someone] may have it or is under suspicious of having it they go to one of these three locations," Johnson said.

"We want to keep intact the shelters that we have, that have many beds in them, we want to keep them intact for people who don't have COVID-19."

The sites will not provide regular shelter services and Johnson said the homeless population should continue to use the shelter network normally.

The city is working on transporting potential infected people to the sites.

Johnson said recreation facilities and places of worship may also be used if the numbers continue to rise.

The city is also implementing four drop-in centres for the homeless population at the following locations:

  • The Wesley Centre on Ferguson Avenue North.

  • Willow's Place on Wentworth Street North. 

  • Carol Anne's Place on MacNab Street South.

  • The Living Rock on Wilson Street.

They are already operating and Johnson said it is extending funding for those sites as needed.

Hamilton closes all city facilities

Johnson said the number of city closures in an effort to to ramp up its response to the coronavirus has been unprecedented.

"I'm going to ask the public to please bear with us," he said.

"The reality is we have never had this large a scale [of] shutdown of service and redistribution of services … this is something that is going to be in place for at least a couple of weeks."

City of Hamilton closed all municipal facilities Tuesday for the next three weeks. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

But, Johnson noted Hamilton likely won't declare a state of emergency.

The city has gradually reduced services since Saturday, at that time closing many facilities such as recreation centres but keeping some services open.

The latest restrictions mean that until April 6, all city facilities will be closed to the public, including municipal service centres, public counters and city hall. Staff will not be laid off during this time.

"We're facing an unprecedented time in our history. This is a decision that was not made lightly," Ford said at a Queen's Park press conference. 

City bylaw staff post notices Tuesday requiring bars and restaurants to close after the province declared a state of emergency. (Jennifer LaGrassa/CBC)

As part of the declaration, the province has mandated the closure of all restaurants and bars, but those that can offer takeout and delivery can continue to do so.

Most businesses, Richardson said, were already closed when by-law officers visited unannounced on Tuesday.

Hamilton Health Sciences tightens access

All HHS locations are limiting entry points to hospitals and screening anyone who enters their buildings starting Wednesday.

A statement notes 32 patients were assessed on March 16 and all of them were referred by a doctor or Public Health.

HHS is also pushing for more virtual care.

Other measures include fewer elective and non-urgent surgeries.

Firefighters responding to fewer medical calls 

Johnson said new measures are also in place to protect firefighters.

The city is now instructing them to avoid providing assistance to cases where various symptoms pop up

HSR bus service reduced

The city also limited HSR bus service to a Saturday schedule during weekdays. 

Johnson said on Tuesday the seats immediately behind bus drivers will be blocked off and the yellow line that indicates a safe standing distance from the driver is moved farther back.

Ridership, he said, is almost cut in half.

Most city staff are working from home, but there's no word on how many are in self-isolation.

Local universities and colleges go digital

Other institutions in Hamilton are also taking additional steps. On Monday evening, McMaster University asked all students living on-campus to move out. The school has 12 student residences that accommodate 4,200 people.

Mohawk College as well as Redeemer University have also shuttered their campus operations.

Gatherings of more than 50 people, including at indoor recreation centres, theatres and concert venues, libraries, places of worship, private schools and licensed day-cares are also prohibited by the province until March 31. 

Ontario previously ordered all publicly-funded schools to close until April 6.