The Sunday Magazine

A rare success story: Kingston, Ont. survives the pandemic with few cases

The public health nightmares of the pandemic were not realized in Kingston, Ontario. They have had few cases of COVID and no deaths, even though it is a city with long-term-care, a large university campus and nine prisons in the region. Kieran Moore, the local medical officer of public health and the key architect of Kingston’s pandemic plan, tells us how they pulled it off.

The city and its surrounding communities haven’t faced many of the issues faced by similar regions

Dr. Kieran Moore is the medical officer of Health for Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington Public Health. (KFL&A Public Health/YouTube)

On April 1, a staff member of a long-term care home in downtown Kingston, Ont. caught COVID-19. But, unlike in many facilities across Canada, that first case never grew into a crisis.

Within three hours, staff from Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) Public Health were onsite. Health guidelines at the time focused on people who were in close contact with the infected person, but the agency went further.

"The public health people said, 'No, we want to make sure we swab as many people as appropriate,'" said Cathy Szabo, president of Providence Care, which runs the long-term care home, Providence Manor.

Szabo attributes the care home's safety partly to the public health agency's ability to keep the infection rate down overall.

No one has died from COVID-19 in Kingston and its surrounding communities, as of July 24, and the region's most recent cases were from late June.

"The work that they've done in this community to keep us safe is outstanding," said Szabo.

The key architect of Kingston's pandemic plan is Dr. Kieran Moore, KFL&A Public Health's medical officer of health and its chief executive.

Building a public health response

"We had very good testing early on. A very good lab that had quick turnaround time. And we had all partners ready and willing and able to try to address COVID-19," said Moore.

By keeping the cases low in Kingston — the region only had six cases that needed acute hospital care — Moore was able to lower the rate of absenteeism at long-term care homes.

Providence Manor, for example, retained the most of its staff through the crisis.

The region's nine prisons presented a unique challenge for the agency. Due to tight quarters and inconsistent sanitation, prisons have been a major source of outbreaks.

Only three hours away in Brampton, Ont., 60 inmates and eight staff tested positive for COVID-19 in late April. But in Kingston, there hasn't been a single case in any of the prisons.

KFL&A Public Health doesn't usually have jurisdiction over the nearby federal and provincial prisons, but they were able to send inspectors to the facilities and make hygiene recommendations. 

"[Corrections Canada] were very responsive to our suggestions," said Moore.

Moore helped set up a hospital for the prisons, though it hasn't had a single patient so far.

The region hasn't escaped COVID-19 flashpoints entirely. On June 23, Kingston had a major outbreak tied to a popular nail salon that had not been following proper protocols.

"We realized over 500 people had been to that nail salon in our community, including over 40 nurses, so that was a huge risk to the community," said Moore.

The agency completed 5,000 tests in six days, according to Moore, and discovered 38 cases associated with the salon. Kingston's sole remaining COVID-19 case comes from this outbreak.

People line up around the block at a COVID-19 testing centre in Kingston, Ont., on June 26, 2020, following an outbreak of the virus at a local nail salon. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC)

Lessons for other cities

Despite the region coming out relatively unscathed, it may not be an easy model to follow. 

Kingston has Queen's University, with an associated teaching hospital. A quarter of the city is 60 or older, making it older than many cities, combined with a low population density, meaning few residents are in regular proximity to each other. 

It's not an international hub, like Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto, so fewer people move through the city. It helped that Queen's University shut its doors after the school's March reading week, discouraging students from returning to the city.

Still Moore believes that the key to any city's success is early prevention, which was KFL&A's philosophy from the start.

"We can either increase intensive care capacity and [build] ventilators or we can do that ounce of prevention," said Moore. 

"It is the most efficient means of keeping our communities safe and healthy. And the most economical means as well."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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