Almost three weeks with no new COVID-19 cases. Almost.
After not seeing a single new case of the virus in the Huron Perth Public Health area since May 1, health officials are reporting a tick in the positive column, marking the region’s 50th case.
The new case, reported May 20 at Maitland Manor in Goderich, also snaps a six-day streak of having no active reported cases in either Huron or Perth counties. It’s still only the 13th documented case in Huron County.
“I think some of the things that might be protective in Huron-Perth is that we are not an urban centre, we do have lower density than a city might contend with,” said Miriam Klassen, Huron-Perth’s medical officer of health.
While experts and health officials agree population density does play a role in the lower rates in the region, with rural communities generally more spread out, it’s not the sole reason the area has managed to fend off a massive wave of COVID-19 cases.
Klassen said the health unit has been able to conduct thorough contact tracing swiftly, and that pre-existing partnerships formed in the region under a single Ontario Health Team have expedited efficient communication.
She also said there is a strong response from the community in abiding by public health guidelines such as social distancing.
“People did heed the response and the direction from the health unit,” said Huron County warden Jim Ginn. “Because we have an older population, that’s maybe part of the reason why they took it to heart in more of our areas.”
As of Thursday, Huron-Perth Public Health has had 37.2 cases per 100,000 people, far off from the provincial average of 162.7.
By comparison, the Middlesex-London Health Unit sits at 92 cases per 100,000, with Sarnia-Lambton at 178.7, Chatham-Kent at 133.6 and Windsor-Essex at 189.3.
Southwestern Public Health, which covers Central Elgin and Oxford, is sitting at 30.3, making them the 7th lowest of the province’s 36 health units.
These numbers likely will rise in the coming weeks as testing for those with mild symptoms increases, meaning that more less-severe cases of COVID-19 will be detected.
But beyond embracing social distancing and a dispersed population, there’s still one thing that’s likely been on the side of both Huron-Perth Public Health and Southwestern Public Health: luck.
“In terms of which health units had initial feeding of imported cases, it often comes down to a bit of luck,” said Susan Bondy, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
According to Bondy, some regions, for whatever reason, were fortunate in that they didn’t import a significant number of cases after March break travel.
Meanwhile, border cities such as Sarnia and Windsor have been particularly hard-hit with COVID-19 cases.
“There’s no proof that there’s anything special about Huron-Perth that they won’t get a case. It’s all about movement,” Bondy said. “They are a two-hour car ride away from an imported case.”
Public health officials in both the Huron-Perth and Southwestern regions worry the low case counts in their areas could trigger complacency among residents and are urging citizens to stay vigilant even as the province reopens.
“I actually am quite concerned at the moment. I think people still hope and possibly think that this COVID pandemic can be turned off like a light switch,” said Joyce Locke, Southwestern Public Health’s medical officer of health. “That’s far from the truth.”
She said as more businesses open up, individuals should follow the recent recommendation from both the federal and provincial governments to wear a non-medical face mask in indoor settings where physical distancing is challenging.
Fatigue with physical distancing measures, especially as summer rolls around, is a genuine possibility. This time of year tends to bring about more travel, with day-trippers leaving bigger cities for quick getaways to rural areas, parks or beaches.
That, coupled with the relatively low COVID-19 numbers in these rural regions, and folks could get the wrong impression that the risk has disappeared, Locke said.
That’s why she feels a regional approach to further reopening the province isn’t a good idea.
“That would only let us take our guard down more and be more at risk for something happening,” Locke said. “I think to assume that we’re not as bad would only set us up for becoming as bad.”