The Grey Bruce Health Unit has declared a community COVID-19 outbreak in eastern Grey County that’s linked to the spread of a variant of concern.
Public health said the outbreak is a “significant event” that requires a region-wide response since at-risk contacts are from across Grey, Bruce and Simcoe counties.
“There are 21 confirmed cases, plus a significant number of probable cases and high-risk contacts related to this outbreak,” the health unit said in a statement Thursday.
“This outbreak is widespread but is centred in the communities of Thornbury, Clarksburgh and Meaford and spills into neighbouring Simcoe County.”
Public health said all Grey Bruce residents are required to follow stay-at-home orders. The organization attributed the spike in cases to people not following lockdown rules by visiting each other’s homes when symptomatic and by attending social gatherings and “bush parties.”
“Everyone across Grey Bruce needs to consider themselves a carrier for the next 48 hours until we reach all cases and their contacts,” the health unit said in a statement Thursday.
“A class order from the medical officer of health will ensure cases and at-risk contacts comply with any direction provided by public health case managers.”
The region’s health unit has redeployed staff to address the COVID-19 “critical threshold,” which has resulted in its helpline being shut down and large scale vaccine clinics getting deferred to next week.
The news has caused some local businesses and services to close their doors for two days. Grey County has closed all its public spaces, including forests and trails, for the next 48 hours, while Bruce County’s library has suspended curbside pickup and computer access services until at least Saturday.
“Now that we see our numbers spiking, I have to say, many in the community are disappointed,” Grey County Warden Selwyn “Buck” Hicks told Global News.
Hicks said the county has seen people — many of whom are out-of-towners — drive up to the area’s trails for the day, which has sparked concern.
“As a result, we have 500 to 600 people gathering at a particular site trying to get that photo opportunity,” he said. “That’s presented problems, because of course, that represents a gathering and represents a risk.”
Blue Mountains Mayor Alar Soever also told Global News that people have been ignoring public health guidelines.
“Our bylaw has been going and educating people when they see a lot of cars in the driveway,” Soever said.
“We will be stepping that up, and I think now the time for education is passed, and maybe it’s time to become more forceful and actually issue fines.”
Kristen Watt, who lives in Kincardine and owns a pharmacy in Saugeen Shores, Ont., echoed Soever, saying she’s noticed complacency amongst the public when it comes to following public health protocols.
“People (are) still travelling into and out of our region, people (are) still socializing,” she said. “I know of a birthday party for a young child that was held yesterday locally.”
Watt’s pharmacy has been administering COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccines to people who are age 55-plus. She said she’s seen a lot of demand, but she’s concerned about the cancellation of Saturday’s mass immunization clinic in the region.
“I understand why the need to reallocate those resources to contact tracing, etc., but the unfortunate outcome is a longer period of time for people to have the potential to be exposed completely unvaccinated,” Watt added.
Prior to the recent COVID-19 surge, Grey Bruce has fared reasonably well since the start of the pandemic.
Before the Ontario-wide stay-at-home order and shutdown took effect several weeks ago, the region fell under the province’s green zone of its COVID-19 response framework.
“I’m not sure — because our region’s cases and death rate has been so low — that people really understand the outcome of those choices that they’re making,” Watt said.
“It’s going to be quite the strain on our health-care system in our region.”
On Wednesday evening, the health unit said Grey Bruce has seen more than 70 new COVID-19 cases in the last 36 hours, with the potential to generate hundreds of close contacts.