As Ontario braces for a tidal wave of Omicron cases, the Kingston area is already struggling to contain the new variant of concern that has flamed through the city, forcing the region to enact new public health restrictions now among the toughest in the province.
On Monday, Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health restricted gatherings to just five people for the next week to curb the spread of COVID-19 as the region’s hospitals — now caring for the highest number of coronavirus patients in Ontario — warned of limited capacity.
Cases of the Omicron variant in the region — with among the lowest case counts in the first three waves of the pandemic, and a high proportion of its population vaccinated — are soaring in young adults, pushing up already-high infection rates from a Delta-fuelled fourth wave that rolled in last month.
Experts say the Kingston area is about three days ahead of Ontario in its Omicron surge, providing a possible glimpse of the coming week, as the province looks to speed up the rollout of booster shots for people at least 18 years old.
“The slope rises dramatically and steepens with the onset of these Omicron cases,” Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of infectious diseases at Queen’s University, told the Star.
“If we’re the leading region in the province when it comes to Omicron, we’re only three days ahead of where the rest of the province is going.”
KFL&A Public Health on Monday had an infection rate of about 400 cases per million residents per day. That compares with Toronto’s roughly 60 cases per million residents per day, according to the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
On Sunday, Queen’s announced in-person exams were being halted due to rising cases among students, becoming what is believed to be the first in the province to take this step. Students are also racing to get COVID tests before heading home for winter break, with high-risk close contacts being told to isolate in Kingston, upending travel plans.
During a Monday press conference, Dr. Piotr Oglaza, medical officer of health for the region, said the significant rise in Omicron cases triggered the new stringent measures on gathering sizes and social settings, which took effect the same night and will continue until 11:59 a.m. on Dec. 20. The Section 22 class order restricts indoor and outdoor social gatherings and organized public events to five people, and puts limitations on bars and restaurants, including preventing the sale of alcohol past 9 p.m.
The measures address the “dire need to break the chain of infection in the highest-risk settings we have seen implicated in the spread of Omicron,” Oglaza said.
The announcement follows other recent measures to slow the virus, including a move Friday to require all close contacts of confirmed cases to be tested and isolate for 10 days, no matter their vaccination status.
On Monday, to ease strain on local COVID testing sites, the health unit said take-home PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing kits will be available at participating family health teams. Oglaza told reporters he believed the health unit was Ontario’s first to provide the self-swabbing kits in such a way to boost access to testing.
The speed of spread in a community, even with full vaccination — Ontario universities have a mandatory vaccination policy — is evident in the Queen’s weekly case tracker. Last week, Dec. 6-12, there were 282 cases among students, compared with 23 in each of the two weeks prior.
Zaid Kasim, president of the Alma Mater Society, the union for undergraduate students at Queen’s, called cancelling in-person exams “good news, but it’s too late.”
“Students have been begging and pleading with the university to cancel (in-person) exams for weeks,” said the civil engineering student. He said people were “anxious” because in-person exams were occurring in large gymnasiums with students “crammed in like sardines” as case counts were climbing.
The university has said wherever possible exams will move to an “alternative delivery format,” which may include an online exam, an exam that is handed in after a few days, or replacing exams with labs. Some professors may cancel exams altogether, others may reschedule in 2022.
In a statement Monday, the university said it “strongly encourages all students to get tested for COVID-19” before leaving for winter break.
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Asymptomatic students who aren’t a high-risk contact should have a rapid antigen test; Monday, Queen’s began providing free tests. If a student is positive, they must isolate for 10 days and confirm results with a PCR test.
Those who are symptomatic, or a high-risk contact, must get a PCR test — students can pick up a self-swab PCR test or make an appointment — and self-isolate while awaiting results. If positive, they must isolate for 10 days.
The university says students planning on leaving for winter break are encouraged to depart “as soon as possible,” so long as they have tested negative and aren’t high-risk contacts. Those already home should get a PCR test and isolate pending results.
Isolating for 10 days means some students may spend Christmas in Kingston. Queen’s says support will remain available, and residences open, for those who can’t go home.
“There are many, many students who are getting their positive (test) results today and will continue to over the next week … They will no longer be able to go see their families,” said Kasim.
“A lot of this could have been avoided if we made a call to cancel the in-person exams a bit earlier.”
The university’s decision followed an outcry from students, including an online petition started by Abby McLean on Dec. 9, with in-person exams already underway. It garnered more than 6,000 signatures.
McLean noted students were waiting days to get tested because the off-campus assessment centre was “booked up” and exam halls were filled with “hundreds” of students at a time when there were “multiple outbreaks in the student community.”
“Having exams in person put thousands of students at risk and likely means that many students won’t be able to see family who are particularly vulnerable to COVID over the holidays,” wrote McLean on the petition.
The day the petition launched, the university announced additional measures such as on-campus COVID testing beginning Dec. 10, moving any remaining in-person fall classes to remote learning and enhanced precautions for in-person exams. By Sunday, it cancelled in-person exams.
Sydney Ko, a fourth-year student, said that news was met with “a huge sigh of relief.”
“It’s a mixture of ‘Thank God we’re not going into an in-person exam’ and ‘At least we can prevent COVID” from spreading further, said Ko, also the senior news editor at The Queen’s Journal, the student newspaper.
She said students were surprised by the number of cases because “everyone is double-vaxxed,” which may have prompted some people to lower their guard.
Ko — she herself had no in-person exams scheduled — said she and her friends are in the midst of getting tested before heading home for the holidays.
Kingston Health Sciences Centre on the weekend transferred two critically ill patients to other hospitals and may need to consider reducing services to cope with an increase in COVID patients. Currently, the hospitalized COVID patients in the region are infected with the Delta strain, said Evans, an infectious disease doctor at KHSC, at the press conference.
Megan Ogilvie is a Toronto-based health reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @megan_ogilvie
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74
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