'Victims of our own success': Kingston goes from leading to lagging in latest COVID-19 wave

After navigating the first three waves of the pandemic with relative ease, Kingston's COVID-19 numbers are among Ontario’s worst during the fourth.

Epidemiologist says early victories could help explain recent struggles

Kingston, Ont., Mayor Bryan Paterson said the city's relative success in the pandemic's early waves may partially explain why its case numbers are currently among the highest in the province. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

After navigating the first three waves of the pandemic with relative ease, Kingston's COVID-19 numbers are among Ontario's worst during the fourth.

The current wave is coursing through a region in eastern Ontario where the early pandemic response stood out as a bright spot. Kingston and its surrounding communities consistently reported fewer cases than much of the province and didn't record a single COVID-19 death in 2020.

Some experts pointed to Kingston's older, dispersed population and its small, domestic airport, but others identified decisive action from the local public health authority.

"We haven't had a tough wave until now," Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson said.

Kingston epidemiologists and politicians are saying those early victories may be costing the city now.

"We really are victims of our own success," Paterson said.

The Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington Public Health Unit currently has one of the worst COVID-19 case rates in the province. Over the past two weeks, its nearly 250 cases per 100,000 people is almost four times the rate in Ottawa. Of those cases, local health officials suspect most are the omicron variant.

In response, the health unit has tightened restrictions. It dropped the indoor gathering limit to 10 people in late November, issued a letter of instruction on Thursday requiring businesses to conduct more stringent vaccination screening, and on Friday introduced a 10-day self-isolation and testing requirement for close contacts of confirmed cases.

'A pattern with pandemics'

"There's a pattern with pandemics from history that areas that do really well early in the pandemic can be hit especially hard in later waves," Paterson said.

A similar pattern emerged during the Spanish Flu in the early 20th-century, according to Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the division of infectious disease at Queen's University.

Cities that suffered under early waves, Evans said, did relatively well in later ones — and the reverse was true as well. He said the same principle may apply to Kingston.

Dr. Kieran Moore, pictured with Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson, is credited with heading the region's successful pandemic response before he became Ontario's top doctor in May 2021. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

The vaccination rate in Kingston and its surrounding communities is relatively high, with more than 90 per cent of its eligible population having received its first dose. 

However, lower infections rates in previous waves means less of Kingston's unvaccinated population has been exposed to the virus, and could mean the highly transmissible omicron variant may spread more rapidly, Evans said. 

Behaviour could also play a role, he added. Low numbers can bring complacency toward public health recommendations.

Game has changed for restrictions, mayor says

Paterson said despite surging cases, public health officials are "doing whatever they can" to keep schools and workplaces open.

"The game has changed," Paterson said. "It's more about targeted measures and looking at exactly where the spread is."

He stressed the importance of workers staying home when they're sick and further encouraged vaccination.

"Public health's point of view is we're not going to impose restrictions blanket across the community," he said.

Evans favours a firmer approach and expects public health to bring in tighter restrictions this week.

"My view is that we need to get strict," he said. "We need to go very quickly into doing regional measures across the southeast."