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COVID-19 in Niagara: Region looking at expanding testing for virus

Regions acting medical officer says travel to U.S continues to pose big concerns
Mustafa Hirji, Niagaras top doctor says he is expecting more cases of COVID-19 from returning travelers. Photo: Montage

As international projections deem that the number of cases of COVID-19 in the U.S will surpass China any day now, health officials are spending their time scrambling for medical equipment while pleading for people to stay at home.

But while the numbers are continuing to slowly rise in Niagara, there is some optimism from the region’s top doctor.

“We are looking to expand the groups that we are currently testing. There is capacity for more tests to be done, and we have been seeing a decline in the number of people presenting to the assessment centres over the past few days,” Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara Region’s acting medical officer of health told Thorold News on Thursday.

Testing for COVID-19 is being done in primary care clinics, hospitals and the two designated assessment centres in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, and is determined by factors including symptoms and travel history, but the scope will now widen, said Hirji, but would not provide details on how the prioritization system would work.

Numbers of how many Niagara residents who have been tested are not being released as per provincial regulations.

The major limiting factor for the health system right now is materials.

Healthcare providers have asked the public to donate unused N95-masks or surgical masks as they are seeing a constantly shrinking supply.

“We are not at critical levels yet, but could end up there in a few months,” Hirji said.

But while the local public health systems are holding up under the comparatively low pressure, things could change rapidly in a matter of weeks - or days.

“We are seeing travel related cases still in Niagara but we will have community transmission any day now,” said Hirji, pointing to the travel across the U.S -

Canadian border, where people still cross daily on a business- or work basis.

That traffic poses a serious risk for further spread of coronavirus, as 5 of 6 new cases over the past three days reported travel history to the U.S.

“If you are traveling to the U.S, you must take every precaution when you return to not spread it. I understand that some people can’t work from home and have employment at the other side of the border, but it is a very high risk area right now,” said Hirji.

A big fear is that the virus will find its way in to long-term care facilities, such has been the case in Stoney Creek outside Hamilton, where the Heritage Green

Nursing home declared an outbreak just days ago, with one fatality reported.

Days ago, Niagara’s first COVID-19-related death occurred when a 84-year old resident from the Ina Grafton village passed away after contracting the virus.

While the person was in the village’s independent living, everyone in the facility who might have come into contact with the person have been tested negative.

Public health is now visiting every long-term care home biweekly to monitor the development and keep all routines up to date.