Community spread of COVID-19 is down in Waterloo region, so why can't we stop physically distancing?

The number of COVID-19 cases contracted through community spread is down in Waterloo region, officials say. But they also warn it's not yet time to relax physical distancing.

Cases could rise 'really rapidly' if people stop physical distancing, Dr. Hsiu-li Wang warns

Community spread of COVID-19 is down in Waterloo region. That's good news, acting medical officer of health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang says, but it doesn't mean people can relax measures they're taking to physically distance and protect themselves. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The number of cases of COVID-19 from community transmission is down in Waterloo region, but acting medical officer of health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang says it's far too early to relax physical distancing measures.

There is currently a "second wave" of the novel coronavirus in long-term care and retirement homes.

"The two are linked. We don't normally have spread of COVID in closed settings. Usually that comes from the outside," Wang said Wednesday during a media briefing. "It's important that we not let up our measures because if we do that, [cases] could go up again really rapidly."

Waterloo region has 550 cases of COVID-19 as of 7 p.m. on Tuesday. Of those cases, 163 are people who live in long-term care and retirement homes, which is 30 per cent of all cases.

The homes also have 101 staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19 but not all workers live in the region.

Limited testing

The region is following provincial guidelines on who should be tested, and the list is limited.

The general public isn't being tested even if they have symptoms. Those being tested include essential and health-care workers, their families, hospital patients and people living in long-term care and retirement homes.

The region generally does between 90 to 130 tests each day, according to numbers reported by Region of Waterloo Public Health. 

Last week, testing was expanded in the region to all people living in long-term care and retirement homes, not just those showing symptoms, but the actual number of tests done each day didn't spike.

Wang says that's because "community transmission has significantly slowed down" and fewer people in the general public meet the criteria for testing.

Physical distancing

Regional Chair Karen Redman says she gets daily emails from people in the region asking whether physical distancing is making a difference in Waterloo region.

"It's a dual message that yes, it is making a difference and now is not the time to become complacent about this," Redman said.

"People need to internalize the fact that their action by physically distancing is actually what's keeping the community spread going in the right direction."

From a bylaw perspective, people seem to be respecting orders not to be in playgrounds and sports fields and non-essential businesses are following the rules of either closing or only doing curbside pick up or delivery, said Mike Murray, the region's chief administrative officer.

Murray outlined the calls bylaw officers from the region, townships and cities, as well as public health officials and police have responded to.

Between March 22 and April 21 there were:

  • 528 site visits that resulted in "some education and/or warning" to the business or individual.
  • 343 site visits where no was action required, either because the issue was resolved before an officer got there or it wasn't actually a problem.
  • 453 phone calls were made when it was determined the infraction didn't require a site visit.
  • Five charges have been laid.

"It continues to be an active area, but overall, we're seeing really quite good compliance," Murray said.

When asked if the region has considered overnight curfews like some Indigenous communities have implemented and Timmins, Ont., has considered, he said right now, that's not necessary in Waterloo region.

Unclear when region will reopen

Murray also said regional officials have started looking at what steps will be taken to reopen the region, but they're following the province's lead on that.

On Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford said there is no set date to re-open the province. Instead it will be a "trickle" and slow rebound.

Wang said the region needs to take the pandemic "day-by-day, week-by-week" and constantly re-evaluate. When the curves for both community transmission and long-term care home cases start to flatten or go down, then there will be discussions about next steps.

"In a few weeks time, we'll be in a better position to see what we can do to relax some of the measures," Wang said.