Overcrowded parks may cause coronavirus flare-ups but real risk lies indoors: experts

After images and videos surfaced of thousands flocking to Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto, there was public outrage and pleas from officials urging people to adhere to social distancing rules to avoid a more severe second wave of the coronavirus.

Possible outdoor transmission may not be a major driver of a second COVID-19 wave, but experts interviewed by Global News said it could make future outbreaks more extreme.

Dr. Alon Vaisman, an infection control and infectious diseases physician at Toronto’s University Health Network, said what happened at Trinity Bellwoods was troubling but transmissions are more likely to occur indoors, where a majority of outbreaks in Canada have been detected so far.

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“In these public settings and the outdoors, the likelihood of transmission is low still. But if you multiply that out by numerous people, then you’re starting to increase the likelihood that something will happen,” he said.

How punishing the next wave of infection will be will most likely be the result of indoor habits, said Vaisman. But park overcrowding could bring the city back to a stage where much higher rates of transmission threaten to overwhelm the health-care system — what Vaisman dubs “the unsafe zone.”

“The second wave is inevitable. There’s no doubt about that. And third, fourth, those are all inevitable waves. There’s going to be waves and waves and waves into this. There’s nothing, there’s no way to permanently fix that until a vaccine comes around,” he said.

“There is a question of how severe it is… And that’s what large gatherings do, they make make the waves worse than they have to be.”

1:59Coronavirus outbreak: Police ramp up presence at Toronto park following ‘Woodstock’ style crowds

Coronavirus outbreak: Police ramp up presence at Toronto park following ‘Woodstock’ style crowds

He noted that some of the responsibility falls on federal and provincial governments, who he criticized as having implied that the world will be able to return to a full normal after the pandemic.

“There are certain things are just simply never going to come back. A lot of things that we’ve done before — bars, restaurants, concerts, sporting events, they simply are never going to be safe for a long time,” Vaisman said.

“If you don’t let people know that, then they’re inevitably going to behave in such a way that’s dangerous because they’re just going back to the way things were.”

The City of Toronto spoke out in a statement against the “unacceptable” behaviour of those who crowded Trinity Bellwoods Park on Saturday, warning of a possible COVID-19 surge.

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“Gatherings like this, where people aren’t keeping their distance from others, run the risk of setting Toronto back significantly in its efforts to stop the transmission of COVID-19,” the statement read.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, too, addressed the large crowds, reminding Canadians to wear masks when keeping two metres apart was not possible and to do their best to follow public health rules.

Dr. Susan J. Bondy, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said it is unclear exactly how dangerous these actions are because the medical community is still learning about the risk of COVID-19 in specific environmental settings — “but there is really good reason to be concerned.”

Bondy said it was “disturbing” to see the size of the crowds at the Toronto park in a series of viral photos and videos online, especially given the high number of COVID-19 cases found in Ontario.

1:41Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau addresses large crowds at Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods Park

Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau addresses large crowds at Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods Park

Images showed many people sitting closer than two metres apart. Many were exercising. Some were shouting and singing, all of which Bondy said have been associated with “clear outbreaks” in various parts of the world.

COVID-19 is transmitted from person-to-person, many of whom will be asymptomatic for several days before showing symptoms, she said.

“If somebody in that crowd was infectious but thought it was just seasonal allergies or if somebody was in that crowd and is about to get symptoms themselves in a couple of days, others will have been exposed.”

An “unknown, untold number” of local regional flare-ups and continued outbreaks, rather than waves — which imply a single pattern that could affect an entire province at once — will be expected until a vaccine is developed, Bondy said.

READ MORE: Mayor apologizes for ‘mistakes’ made during visit to crowded Toronto park

“This kind of event is exactly the kind of thing that leads to larger outbreaks,” she added. 

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch said flocking to parks was “counterproductive,” but hoped it would serve as an example of what not to do.

“This is clearly not how people should be behaving in the course of a pandemic,” he said.

“But if that one event was truly isolated to Trinity Bellwoods, as is hopefully the case, then hopefully this does not amount to a large explosion of cases and hopefully given the tremendous public outcry toward the scenes that were shared widely throughout the country, hopefully that’s enough to prevent scenes like that from happening again.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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