A large senior population is an indication of vulnerability in Muskoka says public health unit

Seniors are considered a COVID-19 high risk demographic.

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Agatha Farmer

On Tuesday, March 24 Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit medical officer of health Dr. Charles Gardner said that the region's current confirmed COVID-19 case count is at 12.

Simcoe Muskoka Public Health Unit Stats - March 24.

Gardner also confirmed that just prior to this afternoons press conference he received news of two more confirmed cases in addition to the 12, unfortunately the two new cases are being processed and he was not able to speak about them today due to the timeline.

Two new cases which Gardner did have information on are both in Simcoe County.

One case is a woman in her 70's from Orillia who was admitted to Orillia Memorial Hospital and is a community acquired case with no travel history or of contact with anyone who had or has the virus.

The other case is a 52 year old man who travelled to the US and lives in Simcoe County and is presently hospitalized at the South Lake Hospital Centre.

Out of the region's 12 cases five are seniors, six patients are recovering at home in isolation, 4 are being hospitalized and 2 are deceased. Seven of the cases are travel related, two are close contact, and three are listed as community acquired.

Gardiner said he is troubled to see the spread of community acquired cases.

"We are definitely seeing the onset of community acquired cases, transmission in our community and we've had a significant number of cases that are severe cases which have required hospitalization. All of this speaks to the importance of people being aware of the hazard of this virus and the need for them to distance themselves from others," he said.

To help minimize public anxiety Gardner said he would like to start referring to social distancing as physical distancing instead.

"We are going to shift over to call it physical distancing because we are becoming aware of a negative impact on peoples well being if they can't maintain social contact in some way with other people ... we need to use information technology to be connected with other people at this difficult time."

Gardner underlined that "one is safer at home, really think about if you need to go out" so that Ontario's health care does not exceed its capacity to respond.

During the question and answer period of the press conference Gardner addressed the management or lack there of surrounding the return of snowbirds to Ontario and specifically to Muskoka. Muskoka Post asked if a screening process is in place to manage the influx. The short answer was that currently a screening process does not exist and this demographic is to screen themselves.

"We have seen a majority of our cases to date travel related and although we are concerned about community transmission we are still concerned about people bringing this back from travel anywhere outside of the country including the US," Gardner said.

He noted that 30 percent of cases in Ontario have been related to travel specifically in the US. He stressed that returning snowbirds need to be aware that when they return to Canada they are to home isolate for 14 days and to seek assessment if they develop symptoms. He emphasized that stopping at a store to pick up groceries or medications before going home would be "a dangerous thing for them to do." Gardner said that if people don't have adequate supplies at home there really isn't an "easy answer for that" but they will more than likely have to ask a family member, neighbour or community services for assistance.

"We continue to promote that information, at the end of the day it's up to people to abide by this, we don't have the capacity to enforce this with the numbers of people that come back. It's important that they receive the message," he said.

Last week Ontario's chief medical officer David Williams was asked a similar question as it pertained to snowbirds. He advised the public that the province is aware that this is a large group of people and that as Ontarian's flooded back into the province over the last couple of weeks "unfortunately a number of them after a few days have been found to be positive from different parts of the US." Williams said that the province was "waiting for further information from the public health agency of Canada as well as the CDC to give some guidance on a comprehensive screening process." That was said on March 16, today's news conference with officials from Simcoe Muskoka public health unit indicates that an adequate screening process is still missing and not likely to be unveiled anytime soon.

As for Muskoka COVID-19 assessment centres the Simcoe Muskoka public health unit is "under the impression that Muskoka will be opening two assessment centres next week; One in Huntsville and one in Bracebridge." It's up to the province to approve these sites. We asked Dr. Gardner what that approval process consisted of given that Muskoka has a large senior demographic.

"Certainly I think it would be a very good thing to have it open and available for assessment and I agree that a large senior population is an indication of vulnerability in that community. The ultimate approval process rests with the province and I'm not actually privy to how that is done. I do know that there was a call out for applications to the Ontario health agency central region for proposals for such sites and that's how they are vetted and reviewed and considered by the province. Over a month ago the health unit reached out to primary care leads and hospitals and the local health integration network to identify such sites and get work under way to have them prepared and ready to go," he said.

An exact opening date for Muskoka assessment centres does not yet exist. Gardner confirmed that he does not have further information on the details of these sites.

Muskoka Post has sent an email to the Ministry of Health asking for details on the timeframe for these sites and for assessment centre approval process clarification given the regions vulnerability due to the senior population.

Gardner had one clear message to the public;

"I would caution people that this is a serious infection, we need to take it seriously, we need to practise physical distancing."

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