Ottawa

'Dangerous territory': How Ottawa-Gatineau became a COVID-19 hot spot, and what to do now

Public health officials in Ottawa and Gatineau are trying to figure out how the National Capital Region became a COVID-19 "hot spot," and how to go about preventing further spread of the illness.

Above all, public health officials and epidemiologists are warning us to remain vigilant

A View From Two Sides, a work of art on the Adawe Crossing, is seen as a person passes by below in the shallow waters of the Rideau River in Ottawa on Aug. 1, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health officials in both Ottawa and the Outaouais are warning that complacency is the biggest threat when it comes to keeping the spread of the illness in check. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Public health officials in Ottawa and Gatineau are trying to figure out how the National Capital Region became a COVID-19 "hot spot," and how to go about preventing further spread of the illness.

According to a colour-coded system, versions of which are now used in both Ontario and Quebec, Ottawa is currently orange, or "restricted," while the Outaouais sits one level below at yellow, or "caution." Green indicates limited risk while red means the situation is critical.

On Tuesday, after days of high case numbers in Ottawa, Premier Doug Ford lumped the city in with Toronto and Brampton as Ontario's COVID-19 "hot spots."

On Wednesday, the city's medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, reassured councillors that the local situation has stabilized, but warned against complacency.

This disease has a way of exploding when you least expect it.- Raywat Deonandan, epidemiologist

"We can't relax. We're not red … but we're not yellow either," Etches said, referring to the colour-coded map of the province.

"We see that it doesn't take much if we relax our physical distancing, our wearing masks indoors, our staying home when we're sick, that we can get rapid resurgences," she said.

Etches pointed out that Ottawa was the biggest city in Ontario to enter stages 2 and 3 of reopening, and said that could partly explain the spike in cases the city is seeing now. So is the fact that the city is connected by several bridges to the Outaouais, she said.

"We're very much one connected population. We see that when it comes to following up situations where COVID was identified in people who live and work back and forth," Etches said.

Caryl Green, mayor of Chelsea, Que., says the alert level in the Outaouais means residents must continue to be cautious by wearing masks and staying apart. 0:50

No plans to limit border crossings

In Quebec, the Outaouais is one of four regions in yellow, or the early warning tier of the system, along with Quebec City, the Eastern Townships and Laval. The province's other regions, including Montreal, currently reside in the lowest tier.

In the Outaouais, health officials report that since the beginning of August the largest increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases has been among the 20-29 age group.

In an update Wednesday morning, Dr. Brigitte Pinard, the regional director of public health, said contact tracing is proving difficult among those younger people.

"We have confirmed cases in which the infected person has had close contact with more than 20 people," Pinard said. "Some patients had trouble identifying all the people they had close contact with because they went to events or get-togethers or parties where there was a high number of participants."

The Quebec government released a new colour-coded alert system on Tuesday, with four tiers based on three criteria: the epidemiological situation, the rate of transmission and the capacity of the health-care system. (Ministry of Health)

While Pinard echoed Etches's comments on the interconnectivity between the two regions, she insisted there's no plan to close interprovincial crossings, as was done in April and May.

"We're not there yet," said Pinard. "If the situation evolves in a negative way in the coming weeks, we'll see if the need arises to impose additional measures. Right now it's about everyone following the protocols."

'A dangerous time'

The rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases in the National Capital Region comes as no surprise to University of Ottawa epidemiologist and associate professor Raywat Deonandan.

"This disease has a way of exploding when you least expect it," said Deonandan. "You never know when you're safe, and the lesson for me is, you've got to remain vigilant all the time."

Raywat Deonandan is a global health epidemiologist and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa. (Supplied by Raywat Deonandan)

Doenandan said Ontario may need to follow the example of B.C., where after months of relatively low infection rates, officials moved Tuesday to close nightclubs and banquet halls following a recent jump in new cases.

"Maybe take a step back, close some things while keeping the economy overall open, reassess in a couple of months and see where we are," said Deonandan.

Compounding the concern is the imminent reopening of schools, the arrival of post-secondary students and the cooling temperatures that will soon be pushing more of us indoors.

"This is a dangerous time," said Deonandan. "We're entering dangerous territory, and we have to make some tough choices."

Vera Etches, medical officer of health, says the level of movement between Ottawa and Gatineau, combined with the gradual reopening, has contributed to a steady level of COVID-19 cases. 1:23

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