CORNWALL — Containment of the virus is still the current strategy — as Ontario’s COVID-19 cases are still traceable to international travel — but Eastern Ontario Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis concedes it’s only a matter of time before “community” or “intrinsic” spread starts to occur here — potentially infecting between 30 and 70 percent of people in the end.
“You can see, at one point, the system’s going to be overwhelmed,” said Roumeliotis during a briefing with local media yesterday. “That’s why we’re talking about what the next step will be once we get it locally, once we get it intrinsically.”
On the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic — in the minutes before the doctor began his presentation — he clarified the term “does not speak to severity, it speaks to extent of spread…. There’s no reason to panic just because they said ‘pandemic.’ It’s not a severity index, it’s just a measure of extent of infection.”
As of yesterday, no cases were yet identified in the five counties served by the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, though neighbouring Ottawa did post its first positive test yesterday, a man in his forties who had travelled to Austria. “Several” tests have been carried out in the EOHU area and have come back negative, according to the doctor.
Five or six planned COVID-19 assessment centres are likely to be operating next week in the EOHU’s jurisdiction, according to Roumeliotus — among other preparations and contingency plans now ready to ramp up as the global pandemic (as declared yesterday by the World Health Organization) advances toward the region.
Every Ontario health unit is establishing such centres as part of a provincial strategy to take pressure off hospital emergency rooms from visitors looking to be tested for COVID-19, he explained.
In the absence of a vaccine or drugs to combat the virus, an escalating number of public health measures are the “only resort,” for health authorities working at the different levels of government, he said.
“We have it on our plan [but] it does not mean we will roll it out, depending on what will happen,” he said, commenting on the range of powers.
“We have a spectrum of approaches, depending on the severity and extent of the infections. We will react accordingly, either locally, provincially or nationally.”
The goal, he explained, is to slow down the rise in the number of cases — to “flatten out the curve” and prevent overloading of the healthcare system because 10 percent of cases will require hospitalization as the illness progresses through the population.
“We want to push it later, to give us more time to prepare, and at the same time, blunt it significantly,” he said. “Because it’s a matter of numbers. If the peak number is 10 million cases … that’s a million people (requiring hospitalization),” the doctor said. He added that if the fatality rate turns out to be only one percent (although the World Health Organization has estimated 3.4 percent), “that’s a lot of people dying.”
As a “collective approach,” public health measures start with surveillance and reporting, including real-time systems tied into local hospitals. The myriad approach also includes encouraging hand washing, keeping hands off one’s face, avoiding crowds, staggered hours at workplaces, up to shutting down public transportation, schools and daycares — and more. “These are factors to consider and possibilities.”
Closing a school “would only be brought on only if the situation merited it,” he said, outlining possibilities ranging from closing one school, a cluster of schools, to all schools in the province or country. “This has never happened before in Canada … never for this type of situation.”
The doctor also took a swipe at hoarders buying up toilet paper. “Just plan that if you’re sick for a week or so at home that you’ve got enough stuff,” he said, quipping, “I don’t know why toilet paper went off the rack so quickly. This is not a diarrheal illness.”
COVID-19, he said, is not airborne. Rather, it travels from one individual to another through “droplet spread” — the inhalation of somebody’s sneeze or cough within “six or seven feet” of you.
And scientific studies show that a mask alone offers no protection in preventing transmission of the sickness, he said, outside of a healthcare environment where proper procedures are followed.
In the event of deaths from COVID-19, that news will be relayed through the Health Unit, but only after the province has signed off, according to officials at the media briefing. And in the EOHU’s case, the acknowledgement of a death will also take a couple of extra hours to ensure a release is prepared in both official languages.