Niagara’s public health department says a cluster of COVID-19 cases among an expanding group of twentysomethings responsible for spreading the virus to two local long-term care homes has affected still more locations.
In fact, it has impacted more than 112 locations across the region including bars, sports venues, homes and retail shops.
Niagara’s acting medical officer of health Dr. Mustafa Hirji released more information Friday about the still-growing cluster that has spread the potentially lethal novel coronavirus to eight Niagara municipalities.
The rapid spread of the virus through this cluster — which now involves more than 40 infections of people mostly around 24 years of age who often meet in bars — has prompted Hirji to urge younger Niagara residents to take the coronavirus seriously, and to actively consider imposing new safety measures on bars.
“Stay home as much as possible and limit your interactions with your household,” Hirji said.
Hirji revealed the public health department was tracking the spread of the virus through this cluster on Monday, but a video conference with journalists Friday was the first time he showed just how sprawling this community COVID-19 outbreak is.
The group is expanding so fast that while Hirji showed a public health graphic breaking down the impact of the outbreak, he said it was already out of date as new information about recent infections was confirmed by contact tracers.
“We have to add 10 to 12 cases,” he said of the graphic, which showed the cluster comprised at least 31 individuals.
Hirji said the cluster formed in early October and was the result of several young adults gathering in bars and at house parties, where there was little social distancing and masks were not worn.
Individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 had been in close contact with up to 40 people each, who they may have exposed to the novel coronavirus. Hirji said each of those people had to be tracked down by contact tracers trying to limit the train of transmission from one person to the next.
The more contacts an infected person has, the more difficult and time-consuming the process is, Hirji said.
The cluster has had at least 213 contacts public health investigators had to reach during their investigations — a number that continues to grow as linked infections are discovered.
The public health department has determined the cluster had spread the virus at 12 households, 17 sporting or recreational venues excluding gyms, 23 retail outlets and at 41 bars or restaurants.
Hirji said that at these places, the virus was spread through close contacts, rather than to people not in direct contact with members of the cluster.
The cluster has also spread the virus to two long-term care homes. Hirji declined to say which homes were impacted, nor would he disclose if any residents there who contracted COVID-19 as a result have died.
There are currently seven long-term care homes with COVID-19 outbreaks in Niagara. Since Oct. 5, at least 10 Niagara residents with COVID-19 have died. Eight were people over 80 and residents of long-term care homes.
The cluster is the most dramatic example of how the virus is moving through Niagara in the post-summer pandemic wave.
Niagara residents ages 20 to 39, and especially those ages 20 to 24, are responsible for most new COVID-19 cases through October and into November.
Although younger adults are less likely to develop serious symptoms as a result of a novel coronavirus infection, they can and do spread it to others.
Through the late summer, Hirji warned as the number of new cases rises in Niagara the odds of the virus hitting a more vulnerable person, like a long-term care home resident, increases.
There were 29 new cases confirmed in Niagara Friday — a rate in keeping with trend of the past week — and at least two new COVID-19 related deaths. The total number of outbreaks, including the long-term care homes and the expanded cluster, also rose by two to 20.
In the past two days, five employees of stores at the Niagara-on-the-Lake outlet mall were confirmed as was one case at the Shopper’s Drug Mart on Fourth Avenue in St. Catharines.
Hirji said if Niagara’s infection rate continues to rise, it could prompt the Ontario government to impose new restrictions here.
“I think we are very close to that,” he said.