House parties pose ‘biggest concern’ for Middlesex-London Health Unit

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford urged university students not to party when they return or begin post-secondary education, saying 'you can party after' the pandemic is over.

House parties will be in the spotlight for regional health officials in London, Ont., and Middlesex County as the new school year unfolds amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

During Tuesday’s media briefing from the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU), medical officer of health Dr. Chris Mackie elaborated on the health risk that house parties may bring.

“It’s really those large uncontrolled gatherings, student party sort of situation, where there aren’t really any public health measures in place, where one case can really generate dozens of other cases,” Mackie said.

“That’s our biggest concern and where we’re really focusing right now,” Mackie added later in the briefing.

Read more: Ontario pauses loosening of coronavirus restrictions amid concern over uptick in cases

The medical officer of health issued a reminder during Tuesday’s briefing that physical distancing is still required for indoor gatherings of up to 50 people.

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London Mayor Ed Holder added that bylaw officers have the ability to issue $750 fines to anyone violating health guidelines.

“We’re not just talking about the owner or the organizer of a party, we’re talking about participants,” Holder said.

Read more: Parties in London, Ont., lead to coronavirus outbreak

While house parties are getting new attention from regional health officials, Mackie said containing outbreaks at parties is nothing new for the MLHU.

“We did have a small outbreak about five of six weeks ago that was associated with young people partying,” Mackie said.

“Fortunately, young people are pretty well-networked, in terms of how they connect with each other, and so in general we were able to trace down the contacts that were involved in several related parties.”

Read more: ‘Faux Week’ cancelled, concerns linger as Western University students return

September brings an influx of tens of thousands of students moving into London to attend either Fanshawe College or Western University.

Ward 6 Coun. Phil Squire, who represents an area of London that contains Western campus and numerous student housing neighbourhoods, has previously described to Global News a “high level of anxiety” in his community.

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“We’ve done so well with COVID to date, in terms of keeping the number of cases low, and they don’t want to see a surge,” Squire said.

During Tuesday’s briefing, Mackie promised a proactive approach from health officials in taming house parties.

“We’re looking at whether it would be best to put some of our public health inspector staff on evenings (and scheduled) over the weekends, so that we can be on the ground when that issue is happening,” Mackie said.

“And potentially work with police and bylaw (enforcement), to make sure that we all have a consistent approach.”

Read more: Coronavirus: 1 new case, 1 recovery in London-Middlesex

The new focus on house parties comes as Ontario continues to see a surge in new cases of COVID-19, with Monday’s case count of 190 representing the province’s largest single-day increase since July 24.

Despite the uptick, London and Middlesex County continue to buck the trend, with Tuesday seeing only one new case reported in the region.

Mackie credited the continued low increases to population density and the region’s adherence to health guidelines.

“I remember when we initiated the mandatory masking rules, it was almost overnight that people in public places were all masking,” Mackie said.

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The medical officer of health added that an increase in case numbers should be expected as the school year unfolds.

“We don’t have any other direction to go, the case counts are about as low as they get,” Mackie said.

“It certainly may be that we see case counts climbing over the next few weeks or months.”