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COVID-19: Outbreak declared after 14 cases linked to London funeral; dozens asked to quarantine

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Dozens of people who attended a funeral service and burial earlier this month in the city are being urged to quarantine and to get tested, after 14 cases of COVID-19 were linked to the event, prompting an outbreak declaration by the Middlesex-London Health Unit.

Between 180 and 300 people were determined to have attended the visitation, funeral service and burial on May 5 and 6, and investigators have found evidence to suggest transmission likely occurred at those locations, as well as at private home gatherings, the health unit said Friday.

The visitation was held on May 5 at Needham Funeral Service, with the funeral the following day at Holy Cross Santa Cruz Catholic Church, the health unit says. The burial was held later in the day on May 6 at Woodland Cemetery.

It’s unclear exactly how many people may have attended each and for how long. Under provincial restrictions, funerals and other religious services are limited to 10 people indoors and 10 outdoors.

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The outbreak is the first linked to a funeral service in London-Middlesex that local health officials are aware of.

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Speaking to 980 CFPL on Friday, Dr. Alex Summers, associate medical officer of health for the Middlesex-London Health Unit, said it appeared that groups of 10 may have cycled through the visitation and funeral, resulting in the large number of attendees.

“In the spirit, or at least by the letter of the law, groups of 10 we’re moving through,” Summers said. “Those environments were probably fairly well controlled, however, we’re still concerned there may have been some interactions between those groups of 10 even during those events.”

“I think we’ll be highlighting to our community that when we say 10 people, it’s not a rotating cast of 10 people — it’s 10 people.”

The health unit says that while it has been able to advise several people of their exposure directly, investigators don’t have a way to reach most of those who were in attendance. Anyone who was at the event and gatherings should be considered a high-risk contact and should quarantine immediately, MLHU officials said.

What was concerning to the health unit, Summers said, were the private gatherings that took place around the formal events, which is where transmission likely occurred.

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With the sheer number of people now being asked quarantine, the health unit is investigating to determine whether or not there were “flagrant violations” of the Reopening Ontario Act, he said.

“We do know that things change very quickly, policy changes quickly, and sometimes people are doing their very best, but these are sometimes complicated things to interpret, and mistakes can be made.”

980 CFPL has reached out to Needham Funeral Service and Holy Cross Santa Cruz Catholic Church for comment.

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Woodland Cemetery, Mausoleum and Crematorium is owned and operated by St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In an interview Friday, the cathedral’s director and dean, Paul Millward, who is also interim administrator at Woodland, said they’re well aware of the 10 person limit, but says “despite our best efforts, sometimes those best efforts aren’t successful.”

The cemetery saw in excess of 50 vehicles arrive for the time of internment, which he says caused a “great amount” of stress for the cemetery, its staff members, and other families wanting to visit their loved ones on the eve of Mother’s Day weekend.

He noted that it was hard to identify whether the large number of vehicles were all there for that particular service, or if some happened to be other members of the public attending the cemetery at the same time.

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“I have 15 to 20 staff who have been placed at risk and who go home to families who — some are nurses, some are clergy, some are public administrators — now they become at risk, as well as the families that we have cared for since this has happened,” Millward said.

The cemetery didn’t know at the time that so many people would be arriving, he added, saying such an incident has been rare during the pandemic.

Despite the situation’s rarity, Millward says the cemetery has had to make a notable change after a complaint was lodged with the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO).

“The (BAO) advised that we would need to secure our gates or manage them, so we have hired a security company who comes in and now manages access in and off the property,” he said.

“Someone who wanted to come to visit a loved one’s grave wasn’t able to get anywhere near because of the amount of traffic for this one particular service… (The BAO) advised that we would either have to lock the gates, or manage them by way of household-by-household access.”

Millward says he has fielded numerous calls and concerned queries about the need for contact information to be collected for contact tracing, and adds they have worked with local funeral homes to advise them of the strict 10 person limit.

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“It becomes a difficult… an unfortunate experience for a family at one of the worst times of their lives,” he said.

“It isn’t that we aren’t sensitive to all of those needs, but it is unfortunate because we need to be respectful of the protocols that are in place for a particular reason, and this simply reinforces what can happen when those protocols are ignored.”

Read more: Indoor COVID-19 restrictions could ease by fall if 75% are fully vaccinated: PHAC

In a statement, Dr. Chris Mackie, the region’s medical officer of health, noted that the pandemic has made it challenging to observe important life events, such as funerals, where people can lean on one another for support.

“This outbreak is showing once again how important it is to continue following public health guidance,” Mackie said.

“We ask that people continue to wear a mask or face covering, maintain a physical distance of six feet from others, and please do not gather in groups or with people who are not part of your household.”

Those with questions can contact the health unit at health@mlhu.on.ca, or at 519-663-5317, Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Information on how to book a COVID-19 test can be found on the health unit’s website.

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Editor’s note: The Middlesex-London Health Unit initially identified the church as Holy Rosary Santa Cruz Catholic Church, but later issued a correction. The correct name is Holy Cross Santa Cruz Catholic Church.

— With files from Andrew Graham

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