Those of us who live in and around Kingston spent most of the first 18 months of the pandemic feeling pretty pleased that our community, when it made the headlines at all, did so because of the intelligent approach our then Medical Officer of Health (now the MOH for the province), Kieran Moore, brought to managing the pandemic. Subject to mostly minor inconveniences, we were able to live our lives much as we had before COVID-19 became a household word. Sure, we had to wear masks; capacity limits were reduced; we couldn’t dance or sing in bars, and schools moved between online and in-person. But few of us knew anyone who had COVID-19, there were almost no cases in the area’s nursing homes, and no one died from the virus for at least the first year. We were horrified if our case numbers went into the double digits.
Generally, we went about our business, got our vaccines, and sometimes all but forgot about the plague in our midst. I’m sure I was not the only one who imagined that, before the end of 2021, we would be able to attend concerts, travel, leave our masks behind us.
How the mighty have fallen
Earlier this week, I cringed when I read a CBC headline announcing: “Ontario just days from COVID-19 case surge similar to Kingston.” A couple of days later, the Toronto Star proclaimed: “Rugby tournament in Kingston, Ontario ‘spread Omicron to university communities across’ Canada.”
Our case count has gone from single to double to triple and now to quadruple digits. It seems almost laughable that just a couple of weeks ago, my daughter and I exclaimed with horror when our numbers climbed close to 100. Yesterday’s number of active cases was 1,186, an increase of 216 from the day before, and I have to assume that today will bring equally grim news.
Just over a week ago, our Medical Officer of Health declared the region to be at the red level. Yesterday, he announced that we have the highest COVID-19 rate in the province. Sixteen people have now died, and we have begun moving patients to other communities because our hospitals are over-taxed; this after almost two years of being able to offer this support to other communities.
Almost two weeks ago, we were told we had to limit gatherings in private homes to 10; a few days later that number dropped to five. Bars and restaurants have had limitations on numbers and hours of operation imposed. Our independent movie theatre has closed until at least the new year, because of concern about virus spread. Some schools have had to move to online learning because so many of their teachers are quarantining due to exposure to the virus.
How did this happen?
It would be satisfying to point a finger at one community as being responsible for the present situation, but that would be too easy and not correct.
According to Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the infectious diseases section at Queen’s University, during the Spanish flu pandemic, cities that suffered under the early waves did relatively well in later ones and vice versa.
Why? Low rates early on can lead to complacency. It is hard for people to follow rules that interfere with their normal routines and it’s easy to get sloppy about mask wearing, hand washing and physical distancing when there are few visible signs of the virus.
When unvaccinated people are not exposed to the virus in the community, it can make it easy for a variant such as Omicron, which is highly transmissible, to spread quickly.
Add to the mix a university that has consistently failed to implement adequate measures to control spread among its community – only on Sunday night did Queen’s cancel in-person exams, even though COVID-19 had been present in five of its residences for at least a few days – a city administration that has not enacted a meaningful strategy to address homelessness, leaving unhoused folks vulnerable to illness and infection, and the inevitability of individuals who bend the rules, sure they are somehow immune, and suddenly the cases count gets close to 1,200.
Our MOH, Dr. Piotr Oglaza is continuing the calm, sensible approach of his predecessor. Further restrictions were announced yesterday and, no doubt, more will come with each passing day, until the new case numbers begin to drop.
Rather than being the one to send sympathetic messages to friends, family and colleagues about the impact of the pandemic in their communities, I am now the recipient of such messages. One sister texted recently: “Pam, what’s going on in Kingston?” A colleague: “Kingston is a COVID mess!” Friends whose kids go to Queen’s are buying rapid test kits so they can be sure they don’t bring the virus with them when they head home for the holidays.
We’ve cancelled our family get-together and our trip with friends to Montreal for New Year’s. We won’t be heading to the Mandarin buffet restaurant for my daughter’s birthday on December 22 as we usually do, and my son and I won’t be having our traditional December 23 movie date. We’ve started double masking.
In the midst of these disappointments and challenges, I am forcing myself to take time to appreciate my many privileges. I have more than enough work to keep me busy and solvent. Even though I am tired of working remotely, I have a beautiful office in my home. My partner and I are triple vaxxed. Our kids and grandkids are not far away and are, so far, healthy. I have lots of books begging to be read. Our liquor cabinet is well stocked. My partner and I continue to enjoy one another’s company. And there’s always Netflix.
It’s time to settle in for another winter of trying to keep despair at bay.