Superspreader event at restaurant leads to 42 positive COVID tests, warnings about new

As COVID-19 cases climb in Ontario — with infections surging past third-wave peaks in some swaths of the province — experts warn that more health units may be forced to implement stricter public health measures to keep up with contact tracing and slow the virus’s spread.

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit will on Friday reinstate capacity limits for bars and restaurants, and cap social gatherings, to curb soaring COVID infections in the region. Sunday’s announcement follows a superspreader event at a Kingsville restaurant that has infected at least 42 people, and warnings from Windsor-area hospitals already struggling to cope.

Windsor-Essex has the third highest COVID infection rate in the province after Algoma Public Health and Public Health Sudbury and Districts, which for weeks have been trying to tamp down cases. Twelve of Ontario’s 34 health units now have infection rates higher than 100 cases per million residents per day, according to the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

“We need to make sure the places that are challenged react swiftly,” said Dr. Peter Juni, an epidemiologist and the science table’s scientific director.

“The challenges now — with Omicron potentially in the mix — is that we need really efficient contact tracing, testing and management systems, and you can’t have that if you have the rate per one million that Algoma has, and that Windsor-Essex is approaching.

“It’s the right thing to do now to impose public health measures in those places.”

On Monday, the province logged 887 new COVID cases, pushing the seven-day average up to 940 cases per day — the highest since June and surpassing the previous fourth-wave peak in October.

While infection rates in the Greater Toronto Area largely remain stable, Juni said that could change quickly with the arrival of Omicron, the new variant of concern that initial reports suggest is more transmissible than Delta, the dominant strain in the province.

“We need to get more disciplined; get more people vaccinated, get more people boosters, and make sure that places like Windsor, Algoma, Sudbury and Thunder Bay — especially if they start to see Omicron outbreaks — have enough capacity to do contact tracing, testing and management,” Juni said. “We want to push back the dominance of Omicron as long as we can; every week we can push it back counts.”

The Middlesex-London Health Unit on Monday announced it is investigating a cluster of COVID cases that likely involve the Omicron variant, though officials are still waiting for the results of whole genomic sequencing. At least 30 cases are already associated with the outbreak, including links to schools and child-care centres, and officials said they expect more than 100 high-risk close contacts to emerge.

On Friday, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit notified residents about a COVID exposure at Elite Restaurant at 20-22 Main St. W. in Kingsville from Nov. 18 to Dec. 2. Officials say at least 42 people have tested positive in the large outbreak.

“In general, we’re reluctant to highlight any one institution or one enterprise,” said Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, medical officer of health for the health unit, during a Monday press conference. “But in this particular case it has some important public health implications. Forty-two of approximately 75 attendees at that one social gathering tested positive.”

The health unit said it has asked all local employers to carefully screen all staff because of the increased risk to the local community in the Kingsville and Leamington areas.

“There’s an immense risk that this outbreak could spread beyond the restaurant community,” said Nesathurai.

According to the restaurant’s manager, Bimi Rexhepi, the outbreak can be linked back to a Nov. 18 birthday party held in a private dining room upstairs.

The nine-year old establishment, which serves primarily steak and seafood, is now closed until the health unit finishes its investigation, Rexhepi said, adding he has yet to be provided with a reopening date.

Like all other guests, those attending the party were checked for their proof of vaccination upon arrival as part of the restaurant’s safety protocols, according to Rexhepi. However, at least one of the party-goers is said to have faked their status, he added. He wouldn’t say where he heard that.

“We are doing the right things,” he said, noting the private dining room was under capacity. “But they found a way to get in.”

Those who dined on the lower floor of the restaurant have not tested positive, according to Rexhepi, who is asking for transparency from guests.

The local health unit has not confirmed this information, saying it will not release further updates on the outbreak for privacy reasons.

However, the manager of communications did note there are currently no reported cases of the Omicron variant in Windsor-Essex County.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, said figuring out how to operate restaurants safely during the pandemic has been “a perplexing problem.”

“We want them open. We can’t have them closed forever. We ought to be able to do it safely, with vaccine mandates, except we’re not.

“I think what happened in Windsor-Essex could happen anywhere — and is happening in other places, but we’re not necessarily noticing.”

If contact tracing fails or can’t keep up in hard-hit regions, COVID cases connected to restaurants could be missed, said Furness, noting that restaurants create “fantastic opportunities” for COVID to spread because many people are “sharing air with no standards for ventilation or air filtration.”

Capacity limits in bars and restaurants help by convincing more people to stay home, and by creating fewer opportunities for a potential exposure, said Furness. But, he added, limiting a restaurant to 50 per cent occupancy doesn’t prevent the SARS-CoV-2 virus from spreading in the air.

“If someone else in the restaurant has COVID, who is contagious, it doesn’t matter what the capacity limit is. You are not going to be protected from them.”

In its Sunday news release, Windsor-Essex public health detailed a number of restrictions, including limiting social gatherings to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors, and limiting indoor capacity for bars and restaurants to 50 per cent.

The local health unit said it’s concerned cases may reach levels similar to those seen during the same time last year, before families begin to gather for the holiday season.

On Friday, Windsor-Essex hospitals, along with local EMS and public health, issued a joint statement, warning of a strain on hospital capacity because of a recent surge in both COVID-19 cases and patients with respiratory issues.

The statement stated there are “intensifying capacity pressures across the acute care system in our region,” like significant concerns over bed capacity, and longer wait times for non-emergency scenarios.

In a Monday statement to the Star, David Musyj, president and CEO of Windsor Regional Hospital, said hospital leaders are worried about the community spread of COVID and are concerned about their ability to continue all hospital services, including elective surgeries, at their current rate unless capacity pressures are reduced.

“Typically, we do not encounter this level of pressure until January,” Musyj said.

Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, said while the rate of COVID hospitalizations remains relatively stable across the province, the health system continues to experience sustained pressures, many of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

In southwestern Ontario, including the Windsor-Essex region, Dale pointed to the “worsening problem” with COVID community spread and hospitalizations. On Sunday, 14 new patients with COVID-related critical illness were admitted to provincial ICUs — 10 of those cases were admitted in the southwest region, he said.

“There’s a very heavy concentration of hospitalizations in that region. You can easily see why hospitals in the Windsor-Essex area have communicated about their capacity limitations and why public health officials in that area have announced protections for the region.”

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