We’ve done good so far, but the outbreak’s not over yet. That was the message from the staff of Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health at an unusual July Board of Health meeting on Wednesday. Nearly a month after the area entered Stage 2 of the re-opening, Dr. Nicola Mercer and her colleagues tried to peer into the future and see what we all might be facing pandemic-wise in the months to come.
“The key takeaway, I hope, from this report is that a second wave is a possibility,” said Dr. Matthew Tenenbaum, the association medical officer of health for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph. “We’re very attuned to that possibility with our partners and with the Province, and we really think it’s important to prepare for [the second wave] as though it’s going to happen.”
“It’s better to be prepared for a second wave that never comes than to be unprepared for one that does come, especially if there’s a possibility that a second wave could be worse than the first,” Tenenbaum added.
But what would that look like? Public Health is considering three potential scenarios: the first would be a series of smaller waves over the next couple of years, the second is a larger fall wave that would follow the same track as the 1918 influenza outbreak, and the third is a series of waves of different intensity that have no clear pattern. While all three options are possible, the third would drift far from precedent in past influenza pandemics that public health has studied.
Factors both controllable and uncontrollable will play a roll in how bad a second wave of COVID-19 might be. In the controllable column, according to Tenenbaum, is that people might become fatigued after months of taking abundant caution like mask-wearing and physical distancing. It terms of uncontrollable factors is the seasons themselves, since the fall and winter is a time of year when even non-pandemic illnesses like the flu and the common cold have an easier time spreading.
“What we do know is that respiratory viruses in general tend to spread more easily in the winter and fall, and that’s why we have winter transmission of cold viruses because when people are in close contact, it creates opportunity for viruses to more easily spread as well,” Tenenbaum explained.
Public Health is working on ways to mitigate that spread in a second wave, which health officials said should be easier now that we’ve rounded the curve of that first wave of the pandemic. Going to a new provincial case and contact management system, giving case management and data entry teams enough resources, taking advantage of the exposure notification app, and keeping up communications and monitoring are among the key directions, but there are other dangers.
“We have our biggest shopping season, as well as entertaining season, coming up at Christmas time, and it is unlikely that we will have an effective treatment or vaccine in time,” said Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer. “There are many parts of this now in play, and public health will have to be flexible and respond to it all as we move forward.”
Dr. Mercer also took the opportunity to address some of the latest news about how far COVID droplets might travel, and how some of them might be small enough to travel through the air. Mercer said that Public Health is watching the research as it develops, but for the most part, they’re reaction, and advice, about mitigating the spread of the virus remains unchanged.
“There are well-documented circumstances where we’ve had one individual who’s infected a high number of individuals at an event, a party, a bar, or somewhere there’s an enclosed environment,” Mercer explained. “There are probably multiple other factors at play like poor ventilation, poor air circulation. or perhaps an individual was was highly infectious at that time, but we do know that it is theoretically possible that these viral droplets can travel further in certain circumstances than six feet.”
According to Mercer, it’s another reason why the order to wear mandatory masks indoors in public spaces continues to be so important in combating the virus. “We actually have seen some improvement in our numbers,” she said. “I am not correlating that masking and our numbers are closely tied because you can’t do that, nobody can do that, but I can say that as a health unit our numbers and our rates have slowly declined.”
Mercer added that the goal now is that the health unit has to keep up its pace of decreasing cases as the province prepares for the next phase of re-opening.
“We are looking forward to Stage 3, we’re planning for Stage 3, we think that the Province will be announcing shortly the move to Stage 3, and we need to be prepare because there will definitely be more close contact and more risky environments than those that were experienced while opening in Stage 2,” Mercer warned.