Statement by Dr Lynn Noseworthy, Medical Officer of Health, HKPR District Health Unit
Starting in January, weeks prior to the declaration of a global COVID-19 pandemic, the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit began working to protect its residents from COVID-19.
We have responded to countless questions from residents and the media, provided information on a variety of topics, guided people through test results, spent hours talking to people identified as confirmed cases, and then spent hours speaking with anyone identified as a contact to ensure they self-isolate and remain safe.
We have worked with long-term care homes, hospitals, and congregate settings that may have seen an outbreak of the illness or worked to protect their staff and the people in their care. We have worked with our health and municipal partners, police and other first responders to ensure a consistent and safe approach to COVID-19 for all.
We have responded to hundreds of questions from businesses and organizations as they worked to reopen safely once allowed by the province.
Yet, despite providing all of this information, some people and media outlets have deemed the fact that we do not share the specific residential area of individuals who have tested positive as a lack of information sharing on our part.
Beyond protecting the health of people in our communities, the Health Unit is also legally required to protect an individual’s personal and personal health information when that information is in our custody or control. While some may think that the population of our smaller communities in Northumberland County is large enough to ensure the anonymity of confirmed cases, the people who have tested positive and live in those small community may beg to differ.
These confirmed cases, most of whom do not require hospitalization, are self-isolating at home and Health Unit staff contact them every day to confirm that fact. Yet, many of them have experienced their neighbours and others from their community harassing them, taking photos of their homes and anyone who enters or exits. Some of these people are posting rumours and photos about cases on social media, repeatedly contacting the Health Unit and calling local police to report what they consider to be infractions.
If it is to protect the health of other residents, knowing where a confirmed case lives is not the answer.
Following public health recommendations that have been repeatedly communicated is the best way to protect yourself and others from the virus. These recommendations include practising physical distancing, washing your hands, staying home when sick, and wearing a mask when you are in a public establishment or unable to maintain a safe distance from others.
Until we have a vaccine, following the above recommendations are the best defences we currently have against COVID-19. In the month of August, the majority of the 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in the Health Unit’s area were asymptomatic, meaning they were not ill and did not have any symptoms. Before they were confirmed cases, these people could have been in the community, out shopping, visiting playgrounds, or going to work. They did not know they had the virus, and if you were not following public health recommendations, you could have been exposed. Knowing where they live after they have tested positive will not protect you!
Think of the potential exposures you could face when you travel out of your own community or go to the GTA to work, visit a store, or attend a medical appointment. Compound that by all the people who come to your town or community from other areas. Some of these people could be asymptomatic or presymptomatic carriers of the virus and knowing where they live will not make a difference.
As part of a comprehensive case and contact management program, Health Unit staff will spend hours talking to everyone the confirmed cases were in contact with during the cases’ infectious period, which usually begins 48 hours before the onset of symptoms and can last up to 14 days afterwards.
Depending on the situation, those contacts will be told to self-monitor or self-isolate and if they develop symptoms, get tested. As part of this case and contact work, Health Unit staff determine if there is a risk to others. This is done whether the case lives in a private home, congregate setting such as a group home or migrant farm, or a multi-unit residential apartment complex. Anyone who is at risk is contacted and, unless there is a risk to the general public’s health, no information about the confirmed case will be released.
We are sorry if people are frustrated that we are not disclosing the residential area of people who have tested positive, but we have a duty to protect their personal health information, as well as their health.
A positive test is a snapshot in time. It tells us that in the previous 14 days, this person may have been in contact with someone who had the virus and was infectious at that time. By the time the test is done, and the person learns they are positive, they may no longer even be infectious. It may also tell us that this person was ill with the virus months ago and didn’t know it until they were tested. Knowing where someone lives will not change those facts or protect anyone from the virus. Wearing a mask, limiting your social circle, washing your hands frequently and thoroughly and practising physical distancing is what works.
We recognize that these are very difficult times for everyone. Your Health Unit staff will continue to do everything we can to help keep our residents safe and supported with information and resources provided on our website, through social media and speaking with our partners, stakeholders, and people who contact our call centre at 1-866-888-4577 ext. 1520.
However, we need everyone to do their part. This means following recommended public health measures. This means wearing a mask even if you do not agree.
COVID-19 is in our community and we all need to take measures to protect ourselves and others. Until that happens, we run the risk of continuing to see the number of cases increase.