Limit contact to only your household to fight 2nd wave says Hamilton's medical officer of health

With new cases rising, the province and Hamilton's top doctor say people should only keep to the people they live with.

Walk-in testing ending in Hamilton assessment centres

Social circles are being put on pause as the government and Hamilton's medical officer of health say to limit contact to those within your household. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Hamilton's medical officer of health is echoing the government's call for people to limit contact to those living within their household. 

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson's recommendation follows Premier Doug Ford's announcement on Friday that "social circles" were being put on pause across the province as he announced a series of stricter measures to try to get a hold on the pandemic second wave.

Among the province-wide changes, the government also announced that COVID-19 testing centres will be transitioning to appointment-based formats. 

Hamilton COVID-19 assessment centres will be ending their walk-in testing on Sunday, Oct. 4. 

A media release from the city says that having social circles no longer works with the current circumstances. 

"With businesses and schools reopening, and many residents returning to work, the concept of a social circle no longer reflects the reality of our daily lives, and are hard for individuals and families to stick to," says the release. 

Limiting interactions to people within your household is "the best way" to limit the spread of COVID-19, it says. Two metres distance must be kept from everyone else. 

People might understandably be confused with the change, said Dr. Richardson, but it would help protect others and prevent further devastation by the virus, especially to the elderly. 

"We are in a significant situation right now so that is why we are changing things," she said. "It is really important to get control on this second wave, and it really is up to all of us to do that." 

Balancing the risks

There are currently 103 active cases in Hamilton, which is up 11 since Thursday. There have been 1,177 cases overall in the city, and 46 people have died. 

Mayor Fred Eisenberger said in a statement he strongly supported the additional measures from the province. He said while Hamilton is not one of the province's hotspots, the city is trending in the same direction.

"All of us remain the first line of defence against the spread of the virus and with everyone's cooperation, we can help stop the spread, contain the second wave and get through this together," he said in the statement.

Hamilton is seeing spread from people who are having social gatherings and not observing distancing and mask rules, he said.

Dr. Richardson acknowledged that having contact with others is important for people's mental health. So when it comes to those who live by themselves, she suggests pairing up with another friend or family member who also lives alone. 

"We're trying to balance risks all the time here with this," she said, adding that the person you picked would have to be an exclusive agreement and not change. 

With Thanksgiving on the horizon, Richardson is encouraging people to be more "innovative" with their celebrations.

Organizing a Zoom call or dropping something off to show someone you care are other options, she said. 

Walk-in testing ending 

Online bookings in the city's testing centres started last Friday, after testing centres and public health phone lines experienced an overwhelming surge in demand for COVID-19 tests. 

In March, Dr. Smieja says the lab was processing around 1,000 tests a day. Now, they're processing 1,700 tests and want to scale up higher. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Dr. Marek Smieja, interim chief of laboratory medicine for the city, said the surge is partially being driven by people with common cold symptoms and kids with runny noses who needed to rule out the virus.

On Thursday, the province updated the screening guidance for schools and child care centres and shortened the list of symptoms that would require a child to be tested for COVID-19. 

This change, agreed Richardson and Smieja, lessens the strain on a system that is operating above its capacity. 

Dr. Smieja said because of the rising demand, in-patient results are taking around 24 hours. Those who go to assessment centres will get their results in three to four days.

The lab has been scaling up —it's processing around 1,700 tests a day —but has been delayed by needing more equipment, which is on backorder, as well as trained people to run it. 

If people who don't immediately need testing can be patient and wait, he said, it would allow them to address higher priority folks. 

"In an ideal world anyone would get tested, but right now is a time we really need to prioritize to make sure those people get timely tested."

Richardson added that it allows resources to be re-allocated and prevent burn out for workers. For example, she said, people who were formally trying to control crowds can now help input data.

At the time of writing, the next appointments available on the online booking site for someone with symptoms were on Monday and Tuesday. 

Hamilton not among hot spots, but cases "steadily rising"

Stricter rules were also announced specifically for Toronto, Ottawa and Peel on Friday following several days of high numbers of new cases in the regions.

While Hamilton was not counted among those hot spots, Richardson said the reality is we are seeing a "second wave" across the province. 

Hamilton's numbers have been steadily rising since the middle of September, she said. 

She hopes people have become more mindful as they saw the increasing numbers of positive cases over the past week. 

"The challenge always is that what we're seeing is always reflecting what happened a couple of weeks ago," she said. "But I am quite concerned in terms of what we're seeing." 

Dr. Smieja said that while there is a surge in testing, there isn't for positivity rates in Hamilton. The city's tests hover around a 1 per cent positive rate. 

Richardson said people head out to socialize and transmit the virus to their family or household. So while most cases are still in the 20 to 39 age group, she says it has spread to older age groups. 

"Everybody across every age group needs to be thinking about this," she said. 

Gathering restrictions set by the province remain unchanged. Those stand at 10 people indoors and 25 people at outdoor events. 

Those attending gatherings, says the city, should remember to physically distance and remain six feet from all other people outside their household.