Public health preparing for second wave of COVID-19

GUELPH – The local public health unit is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst as COVID-19 still dominates life entering the second half of the year.

“We’re also preparing for beyond the second wave and mass immunization,” Dr. Nicola Mercer, medical officer of health for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH) told the board of health at its July 8 meeting.

“There are approximately 311,000 people in (Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph). There could be 200,000 who may want to be immunized.”

Mass immunization is at least a year out, she said, and before that is the very real threat of a second wave.

Although this is the first coronavirus pandemic and much is unknown about how it will behave in the fall and winter. Matthew Tenenbaum, associate medical officer of health, said the health unit is looking at historical data to guide what it must do to prepare.

The influenza pandemic of 1917 appeared to have reached a peak but had a large second wave that took more lives than the first.

Ontario’s and the local health unit’s numbers indicate community transmission of COVID-19 peaked in late March and early April and since then it has declined.

“But there could be more transmissions in the fall and winter,” Tenenbaum said. “We know respiratory viruses spread easier in winter. We know close contact eases the spread. And we know people may be becoming fatigued with social distancing measures. It’s prudent to prepare.”

Tenenbaum said the local health unit will update its case and contact management system to align with the province’s and will use the smart phone app developed to track cases.

“We will become savvy with these new tools,” he said.

Congregate care settings, like long-term care homes and emergency shelters, were hit hard during the first wave and the majority of deaths came from these settings. Tenenbaum said a dedicated group has been established at WDGPH to focus on congregate care and already changes in infection control have been implemented. As well, there are greater supports from hospitals for long-term care homes should there be further outbreaks in the future.

“This is a key focus area for us,” he said.

Mercer noted that while the province was in complete support of the public health response to COVID-19 in the first wave, “with a second wave, we don’t know how the province will respond.

“The population has done some learning, but they are also tired of staying home and physical distancing. And then the biggest challenge – Christmas – with its shopping and visiting and gatherings. It’s unlikely we will have a vaccine by Christmas. Public Health will have to be flexible and responsive,” she said.

Guelph city councillor and board of health member June Hofland asked if the health unit’s priorities align with her own, which are ensuring enough human resources, financial resources, and personal protective equipment.

Tenebaum said other infrastructure, like ventilators and ICU capacity at hospitals, and medications would also need to be in place if a second wave comes.

“And I would add informational preparedness is a priority as well,” he said. “We need to get information to our health partners, so they know what to expect.”