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Markham hit particularly hard as ‘hot spot’ for COVID-19

'Challenge' dealing with institutional outbreaks where two-thirds of deaths occurring, says York Region's medical officer of health, advising vaccine is at least nine months away
April 29, 2020
Heidi Riedner

Markham’s first virtual "Meet up with the Mayor" provided residents the opportunity to ask questions and be brought up to speed on the steps the city has taken during the provincial state of emergency declared in March.

The man of the hour, however, from the roughly two-hour Zoom session on April 14 was York Region's medical officer of health, Dr. Karim Kurji, who answered a number of questions regarding issues such as ramped-up COVID-19 testing, outbreaks in long-term-care residences and the earliest possibility of a vaccine coming into play.

Kurji said the earliest a vaccine could be available would be around nine months to a year’s time.

“A vaccine is not really on the scene as of yet,” he said, adding most people are predicting it will be beyond a year before one is widely available.

Even so, the region has already started to stockpile needles and syringes in anticipation of potential supply shortages similar to the current PPE situation, Kurji said.

Just how a vaccine would roll out would depend on discussions between all levels of government and public health officials and would be worked out "in due course" at the federal and provincial tables, Kurji said.

But, he added, vulnerable individuals over the age of 60 or perhaps 70, as well as possibly those with compromised immune systems, would most likely be "first in line" in terms of prioritization for the vaccine in the region.

The sad fact is, "one in five individuals over the age of 70 testing positive (for the virus) will die," said Kurji, who is making the rounds at various municipal virtual town halls throughout the region and overseeing updates on public health’s COVID-19 web portal to ensure that residents are aware of the latest information regarding the region’s strategy to prevent the spread of the virus and contain it within areas with confirmed outbreaks.

Markham has been hit particularly hard, with 25 per cent of the region's cases -- second behind Vaughan at 43 per cent. Nine institutional facilities in the city have been or still are in outbreak, with both residents and staff testing positive for the virus.

Half of the patients in the ICU in the region are at Markham Stouffville Hospital, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said.

“Sometimes when we see numbers we don’t fully understand the impact, but there’s no doubt we have a hot spot here in our community,” he said.

There have been 1,430 positive cases of COVID-19 reported in York Region as of April 27 at 5 p.m., according to York Region Public Health, reporting 539 resolved cases and 87 deaths.

The largest number of cases, or 32 per cent, in York Region continue to be acquired through institutional outbreaks.

There are currently 39 facilities with active outbreaks, with the largest at Mackenzie Place in Newmarket (58 residents and 19 staff), Participation House in Markham (40 residents and 38 staff), Markhaven Home for Seniors in Markham (34 residents and 24 staff) and Villa Leonardo Gambin in Woodbridge (40 residents and 17 staff). Markham's Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care was officially declared outbreak-free as of last week.

Kurji said it remains a "challenge" dealing with institutional outbreaks, where two-thirds of deaths are occurring.

That includes 11 Markhaven residents and five Participation House residents, as of April 28.

A Markham health-care worker at a Scarborough long-term-care facility and an employee of the Estée Lauder facility in Markham have also died due to COVID-19.

“We are all dealing with this pandemic worldwide, and certainly the crisis has hit home here,” Scarpitti said.

But there are "signs of optimism," Kurji said, adding that increased supports from the province as well as pandemic pay for health-care workers "will certainly help."

Case "doubling time" in the region is about 14 days, which is "very good" in comparison to other areas, Kurji said.

The cumulative graph of cases also appears to be flattening and the number of new cases per day seems to be going down, with periodic spikes, he added.

Kurji advised that everyone remain vigilant and continue to practice hygiene and physical distancing protocols.

For seniors not living in an institution, Kurji said, it is very important to stay at home and get their essentials from family, friends or neighbours.

Kurji encouraged anyone showing signs of the virus to get tested, noting criteria have been substantially "liberalized" in the past weeks and that Markham Stouffville Hospital's assessment centre has "ample capacity" to test.