Dr. Kit talks transmission rates, schools and vaccines

Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

As part of the proceedings for this year’s annual general meeting of the Rainy River District Municipal Association (RRDMA), municipal leaders had the opportunity to hear from a medical professional regarding COVID-19 in our area and what’s being done to keep the public safe.

Dr Kit Young Hoon, medical officer of health for the Northwestern Health Unit (NWHU) was a part of the video conference call, where she took the opportunity to to go over regional numbers of the virus, which have been trending upwards during the second wave in northwestern Ontario. Young Hoon also fielded several procedural questions and addressed some misunderstandings.

Kicking off her portion of the presentation, Young Hoon brought attendees through the different health hubs of the region in order to explain their numbers, what cases have been like, and how they are now faring. Using graphs that showed off data from Rainy River, Emo, Fort Frances, Atikokan, the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba and Minnesota state, Young Hoon compared and contrasted the rise of the second wave of COVID-19 in the region, noting that numbers began to creep upwards in November and December

“Generally you can see our case numbers are increasing,” she said.

“The increase is driven by different parts of our catchment areas, so it’s not that the risk is the same across the catchment area.”

In discussing the number of cases by region, Young Hoon also touched upon a controversial aspect of the NWHU’s reporting of cases in the area, namely that due to privacy laws the health unit does not reveal the specific community that each new case is found. Young Hoon noted that because the region has such a small number of communities, and given that the province releases much more specific data on COVID cases, the NWHU realized that it wouldn’t be difficult for things to get dicey, privacy-wise.

“When you have just one or two cases it’s easy to match with our information and then it increases the risk of interfering with an individual’s privacy,” she explained.

However, Young Hoon also noted that as the region has begun to see an increase of cases following November and December, the health unit will also be changing the way it collects and reports its data.

“It means we can analyze information at a health hub level more frequently,” she explained.

“We are planning to do it weekly, and that information will be released weekly to the media so that they’ll have case numbers by health hub. If we have a lot more cases we’ll probably end up doing it more frequently but right now, because we’ve still had a number of days per week where we have zero cases or low cases, we’re trying to do it weekly.”

Young Hoon also spoke to the attendees about the recent decision to postpone the return to in class learning for schools in Fort Frances while allowing students in Rainy River to return to classes. Young Hoon explained that because each health hub has a different population size, the cases necessary to send it into the red zone are different. Where a larger town like Fort Frances would need three cases a week to put it into red, a smaller community of 2000 people would only need half a case; therefore, Young Hoon explained, the transmission rate isn’t as useful to base decisions on. More importantly, the health unit looks at the way the virus is being transmitted. If a spread is easily visible and contained to one or two households that are following self-isolation rules, there is less of a risk for in person learning. However, if, like was observed in Fort Frances, the spread of the virus is difficult to track or has no known connections to other cases, it makes it less safe to send kids back to school even if it seems like the community has fewer cases overall.

Moreover there were legitimate concerns when it came to the virus in Fort Frances because, as the doctor explained, the health unit was running into situation where the people they contacted who had tested positive were withholding information.

“In Fort Frances situation we had a number of cases where there was no known previous exposure and those individuals had unfortunately socialized a fair bit,” Young Hoon explained.

“We were concerned about potential spread. We were also having challenges with people not providing information really openly. We were finding things like misinformation, not sharing contact information, that kind of thing. That was happening specifically in the Fort Frances area.”

Young Hoon said not all of the people in Fort Frances behaved that way, but it was enough to be noteworthy.

On the topic of the vaccine coming to the northwest region, Young Hoon noted that the vaccine is expected to arrive in early February for long term care home workers and stressed that the NWHU is ready to distribute it to the public in a timely manner as more doses arrive.

“We are ready to get that long term care home vaccine when it comes in,” Young Hoon said.

“Vaccines are something that we do every single year. There’s a flu vaccine campaign, there are lots of other vaccine clinics that we do. We’ve done mass immunization clinics in the past, so this is not new for us. We’re not the only agency that does vaccines, since primary care, long term care homes, hospitals do their own staff, so that’s why we’re working in partnership with everyone to do this work.

“From a human resource perspective we have the capacity,” she continued.

“We will be working quickly to get the vaccine out as soon as we can. Because it will be happening in April, May and June, we’re still in the planning process, it’s hard to have a plan fully established when we don’t know how much vaccine we’re getting, what type of vaccine and what dates it’s coming. Those are things we’re planning around and the plan will be finalized closer to the dates when we have that information.”