As It Happens·Q&A

Kingston made it through this pandemic year with one death. Here's why

Kingston, Ont., has only seen one person die since the COVID pandemic began a year ago. That's due, in part, to the city's medical officer of health, who acted to secure long-term care homes and make masks mandatory while other jurisdictions were still grappling with what to do.

Kingston's medical officer of health was quick to lock down long-term care homes and make masks mandatory

Dr. Kieran Moore is the medical officer of health for the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington health unit. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

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Kingston, Ont., is home to a university, a large population of seniors, and several prisons — but so far, it has made it through the pandemic relatively unscathed.

As of Wednesday, there were 20 active cases of COVID-19 in the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington [KFLA] public health region, which has a population of about 210,000. There's been one COVID death in the region since the pandemic began a year go.

That's a far cry from its neighbours, Toronto and Montreal, both of which have been major hotspots for the virus. 

Dr. Kieran Moore, KFLA's chief medical officer of health, recently spoke to about the lessons other Canadian regions can learn from Kingston. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Dr. Moore, we are one year into this pandemic, and in your city of Kingston, you've had only one person who has died. How do you feel about that?

We're saddened that we've had even just the one death. But we have been very, very fortunate.

[I] have to thank the community who have worked so hard to try to limit the spread of this virus. Obviously, it's a community effort for the entire region, and I'm very proud of our entire community.

Kingston is not an island, is it? It's not remote. It's, in fact, in the middle of a very busy corridor — the Toronto-Montreal corridor — and so close to the U.S. border and the crossings there. So how did you manage to keep Kingston so safe?

We've embraced prevention right from the start, and our community adhered to a social and physical distancing, mask wearing, good hand hygiene.

We had a couple of scares early on in the pandemic that I think just reinforced how important prevention of the spread of COVID was. We had an early outbreak after the reopening in a nail salon that spread fairly quickly to multiple members of our community. And the research shows if the community embraces prevention early on and maintains it, that you can limit the spread. And that's really been the cornerstone of our approach.

The other piece is that Public Health is in the perfect position to co-ordinate with the health-care system, as well as municipal partners and community partners. And that co-ordination, communication, collaboration has just paid off in dividends because everyone's been on the same page. We've all worked so well together as a community. And our hospital partners helped us with the assessment centres. Our primary care partners staff them.

We've been working so well together for a year, I'm very confident that we're going to have a very robust immunization strategy going forward.

Bartender Larissa Vinals wears a mask for protection while pouring a beer at the Toucan bar in Kingston, Ont., on Feb. 10, 2021. The KFLA region is in the green zone, Ontario's least restrictive pandemic response. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

OK, so I guess you're saying that you have obedient citizens. But it seems that there was a lot more involved with your success in Kingston. One of them being that, well, we know that one of the biggest areas that were hit with COVID infections in Ontario and elsewhere were long-term care homes. [COVID] killed thousands of people. But you started working quite early on to secure those long-term care facilities in February — is that right?

That's correct. We had been watching what was going on internationally with COVID-19 and saw the major outbreaks that occurred in the West Coast in Washington state. And Feb. 3, we held our first conference with the nurse leads, the administrators, physician leads of our long-term care and said, "What do you need? How can we support you? How can we prevent this virus getting in to your vulnerable populations?"

And we came up with it with a game plan where our inspectors would help support them in infection prevention and control. We help them with robust testing strategy. We audited their best practices to ensure they felt supported, that they could don and doff the equipment appropriately. And we we worked with them weekly to support them and keep them protected. And that certainly paid off for us to have that great partnership.

We'd worked well with them historically for preparing for pandemics and every influenza season. So this wasn't new to us. We've always had a strong partnership with them, and I think they've done brilliantly.

Did you have any outbreaks in those facilities?

We've had a few staff that turned positive and I think one patient that was positive, but otherwise no outbreaks, and as you said, no mortality associated with it. So, you know, I'm very proud of all of them. And I told them that this week when we had our most recent conference call.

Screenshots from Moore's YouTube COVID-19 briefings, where he keeps residents up to date using a Sharpie and a flip chart. (KFL&A Public Health/YouTube)

You also had a mandatory mask policy as early as June, which was months before the rest of Ontario. Why did you decide to do that?

We did that when we reviewed this [nail salon] outbreak just after the reopening in Ontario. I saw that people hadn't been adhering to the mask wearing, either as employees of some of the facilities and/or of clients. And that was a bit distressing. We'd been promoting mask wearing all along.

You need to be proportionate in your response. And I thought once we had the outbreak, that the community would understand the importance of the prevention strategy, and put the order in. And I think our community quickly realized that it will prevent the spread, and it was necessary at the time.

Was it a huge advantage, though, for Kingston that … lot of your employment there is in … government jobs and education? A lot of white-collar employment that allowed people to work from home more than in other places, not going to factories or meatpacking plants, which have been major sources of infection?

Oh, that is an advantage in that we don't have a lot of fabricating plants, manufacturing plants.

We do, on the other hand, have colleges, universities, correction facilities and a provincial prison. We did have an outbreak at one of our federal penitentiaries, and it spread fairly significantly, but it didn't have an impact on the hospital sector, and no mortality associated with it either.

The other piece is I think our staff here at KFLA have been brilliant at case and contact management. We we have a local lab, actually, that does the processing so our turnaround time's always been strong and within 24 hours. Our assessment centres have been open seven days a week right at the beginning of this outbreak. So we've always had good testing, good turnaround times. And our nurse detectives here are contacting individuals always within 24 hours and isolating their contacts.

And when you have all of those dominoes lined up, I think you can have success.

Audra Wash cleans chairs at the waiting area at the Invista Centre COVID-19 vaccination site in Kingston. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Why do you think that others didn't have the success?

I'm in a setting where I have 211,000 individuals I care for. I know most of the family docs. I know the emerg docs. We're well coordinated. And, for me, I can call the resources or the medical director of the long-term care facility and know them by name.

When you get into a large urban setting, it's much more difficult. The complexity increases. The amount of mobility in the population increases.

Your city is also in the Green Zone. That's one of the very few places with that lowest restriction level in Ontario. We're now seeing the vaccines are going to people's arms. And I know that Kingston is a big tourist hub as well. Are you expecting things to be back to normal in Kingston by the summer?

I really do hope. I'm so hopeful with this immunization strategy that's being rolled out at a provincial level. The amount of vaccine seems to be increasing that's going to be coming in, especially in the beginning of April. 

So I'm very much looking hopeful to late July, early August tourism coming back to our community in a safe manner. We'll continue to abide by some public health measures — masking and hand hygiene and screening. But we hope to return late this summer to this new normal and start our recovery process in our region.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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