Outbreak!

Kingston, where I live, has been relatively untouched by the pandemic. Due in large measure to the well-informed approach of Kieran Moore, the Medical Officer of Health for Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health Unit, there have been no deaths in this community, only a small number of cases, and no cases at all in long-term care facilities or the federal penitentiaries that dot the landscape in this part of the province. Also helping the situation has been the absence of the more than 20,000 students who make Kingston their home between September and April and the lack of tourists due to the closed Canadian/American border.

No more. Last week, Kingston experienced its first outbreak of COVID-19, which began in a local nail salon. It has been an eye-opening opportunity to look at just how easily and quickly this virus can spread as well as to consider some of the challenges with moving to further phases of pandemic recovery.

Like tentacles of an octopus

More than 500 customers came through the nail salon in the 14 days leading up to the discovery that some of its staff had the virus late last week. All of those people have had to get tested. So far, 27 people have tested positive, but those numbers are climbing daily. Everyone those people have had contact with – on average, 10 people each – must also get tested. All customers and secondary contacts are expected to self-isolate for 14 days.

Among those who have tested positive are a restaurant worker and a construction worker. As a result, both of those workplaces as well as the nail salon have been shut down.

Others who have tested positive include health care and correctional workers. What’s to happen with those workplaces? After all, you can’t close down a hospital, LTC facility or a prison.

Who’s responsible?

Was there too much of a rush to reopen personal care businesses? Were some of us too keen to feel as though our lives were returning to something approaching normal? I know I was really happy to eat out last week with a friend and then engage in some retail therapy as we wandered around downtown Kingston. I was looking forward to having a manicure and pedicure with my daughter last Friday, but we cancelled that once this story broke.

Should we have been able to anticipate that not every business would scrupulously follow all the rules? Are the rules unreasonable for a small business struggling to survive?

Are the expectations for employees, desperate to get back to work because they need the money, unrealistic? Given that people can be sick and contagious without symptoms, does screening employees guarantee that no one who is sick is coming into the workplace? What if that employee has been exposed but doesn’t know it?

If I am a restaurant worker used to doing my job a certain way, even if I am doing my best to follow the new rules, isn’t it inevitable that I will occasionally forget and revert to the way I am used to doing my tasks? If I am in a rush and feeling pressured to get a food order out, might I skip a step in the rigorous sanitizing and distancing processes now in place?

What about customers who refuse to follow the rules? It may be difficult for an employee to insist that a customer mask or wait outside or otherwise do something the customer does not want to do.

What about the rules that seem silly? In order to visit my mother at her long term care facility, I have to have had a negative COVID-19 test in the previous 14 days. All this establishes is that on that day I was not infected; it doesn’t mean that I have not contracted the virus in the days between when I had the test done and when I visit my mother. Is the test requirement anything more than a corporate CYA move?

Speed up testing, slow down everything else

The health unit has moved the region’s COVID-19 status from green to yellow (which is still better than orange or red), and issued an order under Section 22 of the Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act that:

“Any customer, patron, employee or visitor who enters a commercial establishment is required to wear a face covering inside the establishment.”

Kingston’s main street has been reduced from two lanes to one to make it easier for people to stay physically distant when walking downtown (and, perhaps, to allow restaurants more space for patio dining).

COVID-19 testing capacity here has been challenged over the past few days. More than 3,000 people were tested in the past five days, many of them – including me – at a drive-through testing site on Sunday, where people were moved through quickly and efficiently by very cheerful staff. This was a relief, as wait times the previous three days had been anywhere from three to more than five hours, which is just not practical for most people.

After the virus was discovered in a second nail salon, Dr. Moore has said that, if there are any more confirmed cases linked to local nail salons, the health unit will order all salons in the district to close down. He has also reflected that perhaps personal services such as nail salons did not need to reopen along with other businesses:

“We were in a bit of a bubble; that bubble has burst . . . .We will learn from this.”

There is something for all of us to learn; maybe especially me, as I continue to crave more opportunities to be social. Hard as it may be to consider an end to our brief window of gathering in groups of up to 10 and going out to restaurants, nail salons and stores, we need to slow down, stay home and stay safe, even if our fingers and toes try to persuade us otherwise.

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