Ontario has seen a spike in the number of COVID-19 outbreaks and the doctor leading the province’s response says that there has been an alarming increase in the proportion of people infected as a result that belong to older, more vulnerable populations.

Dr. Dirk Huyer told reporters on Thursday afternoon that there have been 112 new outbreaks reported in the province over the past week, compared to 115 over the previous two weeks combined.

He said that while the outbreaks continue to take place in a “variety of settings” there has been a recent shift with retirement homes, long-term care homes and group homes suddenly making up an increased proportion of all occurrences.

At the same time, the average age of those people being infected due to institutional outbreaks has risen. Huyer said that back in the summer approximately 80 per cent of the cases traced back to outbreaks involved people under 40. Since then he said that the trend has largely reversed and there is now a “much lower percentage of younger people and a much higher percentage of older people.”

That would seem to be borne out by the data.

As of Sept. 1, there were just 18 active outbreaks in long-term care homes and 19 in retirement homes but today the number of outbreaks in those settings have more than doubled – 49 active outbreaks in long-term care homes and 40 in retirement homes.

“We are continuing to see more and more outbreaks and the vulnerable sectors – retirement homes, long-term care homes, group homes – are increasing in their proportion which is incredibly distressing due to the fact that they are more vulnerable not only to infection but the complications of infection,” Huyer said on Thursday.

‘The alarm bells are ringing louder and louder’

Hundreds of long-term care homes declared outbreaks in the first wave of the pandemic as thousands of residents got infected with the virus and more than 1,800 ultimately died.

Over the course of the summer the virus was largely kept out of long-term care homes and a large proportion of new cases of COVID-19 involved people under the age of 40.

That, however, might be starting to change.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said that transmission of the virus is “starting to spill over into older age groups” much like it did during the first wave this past spring.

“As the number of cases pick up and as the positivity rate picks up and the reproductive rate picks up the alarm bells go off more and more because once it starts to spill over to vulnerable age groups it starts to impact on our systems and our hospital systems start to get impacted,” he warned. “The alarm bells are ringing louder and louder.”

Williams said that there has been an increase in outbreaks in all congregate settings but particularly those housing vulnerable populations.

He said that the province is also seeing more and more cases show up in schools, though he said transmission does not appear to be occurring in the school setting at this time.

Huyer, meanwhile, said that with the rise in outbreaks it is important that the province retains the ability to “provide testing in a rapid way to outbreak situations.”

He said that for that reason Ontarians who aren’t symptomatic and have not been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus shouldn’t be getting tested at this time.

“It's really important that people think about when they're going to get tested and think about whether they fit within that group,” he said.