Public health calls in reinforcements to solve the 'mystery of the Baie-des-Chaleurs'

The virus may have arrived in the Gaspé peninsula during a bingo night. Or possibly amid the coffee crowd at a local harness-racing track. As the sparsely populated Gaspésie struggles with a runaway COVID-19 outbreak, it hopes to pinpoint how and where the virus first took root.

Was it a bingo night? A café crowd? Officials in the Gaspé are hoping to isolate how and when COVID-19 surged

The village of Carleton-sur-Mer, in the Baie-des-Chaleurs, is among the towns contact tracers will examine in hopes of finding patient zero for the second COVID-19 wave, which is buffeting the Gaspé peninsula. (Marie-Jeanne Dubreuil/Radio-Canada)

Maybe it all started at the Club de l'âge d'or et de 50 ans de Saint-Omer in Carleton-sur-Mer, on bingo night.

Or possibly a few kilometres west at the Club des courses de Nouvelle's trackside café, a favourite spot for locals to congregate.

Here's what is beyond question: the Gaspé peninsula was largely spared in the initial COVID-19 wave but the virus returned in a big way in mid-September.

If the region isn't experiencing the highest infection rates in the province these days, it's not far off the lead.

But reinforcements are on the way, and it's hoped they'll open a window that officials hope can provide better insight into how the second coronavirus wave is spreading through the regions.

Next week, a team of medical students will arrive to help with the epidemiological effort. Some of them will be sent on a detective mission: find patient — or patients — zero.

"They will take the time to look through the files," said Dr. Yv Bonnier-Viger, the region's chief public health officer, "go there and visit the place and see how it is possible the virus entered."

Bonnier-Viger said the public health department has decent information on "links of many people who were frequenting these institutions" but the fast-expanding caseload has left him and his staff no time to follow up on it.

Identifying and cataloguing the positive cases is hard enough, he said, "we have too much work now."

How did the virus arrive, spread so quickly?

The golden age club says it took all recommended precautions, including disinfectant use, plastic barriers, and social distancing. The track-side café says it, too, followed the rules.

Now the region's health authorities will have the resources to dig a little deeper.

It helps that in the case of the bingo night, for which 91 people gathered in hopes of grabbing a share of the $2,700 in prize money, the golden age club kept a registry at the door and insisted all attendees sign it.

Like many other sparsely populated, isolated regions, the Gaspé wasn't affected dramatically by this spring's initial COVID wave. Even the summer tourist season went relatively smoothly. It wasn't until later that cases began piling up.

Locals have speculated that cultural factors might provide a clue as to why that's happened. It's a tightly knit region, families that often spread across multiple towns.

Bonnier-Viger isn't buying it.

"I don't think we've had a change in the culture of the people," he said.

The likelier explanation, in his view, is that since the summer passed largely without incident "people have relaxed a little bit in their observance of the rules."

Level of contagion is worrisome

Public health officials are battling the coronavirus in a pair of long-term care homes.

The last two weeks have seen five COVID-related deaths (there have been a total of 17 in the region to this point in the pandemic).

The CHSLD in Maria, which sits east of both Nouvelle and Carleton, and the privately owned Lady Maria seniors' home nearby have been hit particularly hard. The former has had 42 declared cases among both patients and staff, the latter 47.

Six school classes have been sent home because of positive tests. The virus is spreading in the community.

On Wednesday, the health region confirmed a new outbreak, this time in a shelter for women escaping domestic violence.

The Maison d'aide et d'hébergement L'Émergence in Maria has logged six infections: two employees and four residents, each of whom was quickly placed in isolation.

"The good news is that, as of now, we don't have any more positive results from within our team or any of the people who are staying with us," the facility's director, Nancy Gough, told Radio-Canada.

with files from Spencer Van Dyk and Radio-Canada