With this month marking the 3rd anniversary since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 coronavirus to be a global pandemic, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on some of the many challenges and successes our community has experienced over these past three years.
Within days of the WHO’s pandemic declaration in March 2020, Canada’s federal, provincial and local governments issued emergency orders enacting a series of unprecedented measures to control the spread of COVID-19 in Canada. In the Eastern Ontario Health Unit region, we were already more than three weeks into emergency response mode as repatriated Canadians from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak onboard, were quarantined in Cornwall at the NAV Centre in February of 2020. In mid-March, the first case of COVID-19 infection in our region was detected. It was one of many thousands of cases that would go on to dramatically affect our region, along with other areas of Canada, over the next three years as the virus rapidly spread across the globe.
Since 2020, the pandemic has had a significant impact on all aspects of our society – economic, social and personal. In our region alone, we’ve had many thousands of cases and hospitalizations. Sadly, there have also been nearly 300 deaths to date due to COVID-19, each of which has been a tragic loss for their loved ones and our entire community.
During this time, government and public health authorities, along with the broader healthcare system and a multitude of community partners including local municipalities and school boards, have worked tirelessly to try to protect communities from the devastating effects of the virus as it continually spread and evolved into more contagious variants. Early in the pandemic, restrictions including business and public facility closures, school closures, stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and limits on visits to hospitals and long-term care homes were implemented in an effort to save lives by curbing the spread of COVID-19. Many less-urgent health and government services were also paused in order to focus fully on this effort.
We can be certain that these measures, although difficult, have saved countless lives. But we must also recognize that the pandemic, and the restrictions put in place to cope with it, have caused hardships for many people and businesses in our community and across Canada. We are still grappling with the economic effects of widespread closures of businesses. School closures and the move to online learning for a significant period during the early pandemic has taken a toll on children’s learning and mental health. Social isolation, anxiety and depression have affected all ages. For many people, important medical procedures and appointments were paused while health facilities were overwhelmed with COVID cases among patients and staff. As we emerge from the pandemic, there will still be much work to do to ensure that all those individuals and sectors that have suffered negative impacts have the supports they need to recover and thrive. The Eastern Ontario Health Unit is strongly committed to working with local community partners to help our region’s residents collectively recover.
Despite the many hardships, the last three years have been also a time of resilience, adaptation, and progress. During the early stages of the pandemic, the rapid set-up of local testing clinics, isolation measures, and case management and contact tracing teams helped to limit spread of the virus. The development and approval of COVID vaccines by late 2020 became a key part of the success in fighting COVID-19’s impact by dramatically reducing hospitalizations and deaths. As the vaccines became available, immunization clinics were rapidly mobilized throughout our region thanks to the herculean efforts of public health staff, local healthcare providers and pharmacists, municipalities, community leaders and volunteers. To date, more than 550,000 vaccines have been administered in our region! Effective antiviral medications are also now available. And throughout the last three years, our incredible community has showed its heart and spirit by adhering to public health measures to protect one another. Thanks to our residents’ cooperation in respecting restrictions, following public health measures and getting vaccinated, the pandemic’s toll, while significant, has been limited and is slowing. Today, we are thankfully in a period of relative stability in the pandemic, and we are finally able to progressively return to many aspects of normal life.
Going forward, we must remain vigilant and continue taking personal measures to protect ourselves and those around us. This includes keeping our COVID vaccines up to date, staying home when sick, washing hands frequently and wearing a mask in crowded indoor public spaces, especially if you or someone you are close to is at higher risk of serious illness.
I am deeply grateful for the efforts of everyone who has played a role in our response to the pandemic, and to our community for your cooperation and patience over the last three years. I am optimistic that by continuing to work together, we will emerge from this pandemic stronger and more resilient than ever before.
Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, MD, CM, MPH, FRCP(C), CCPE
Medical Officer of Health
Eastern Ontario Health Unit