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Critical threat to Old Order Mennonite community forced order by Public Health

Despite conversations over the course of the pandemic, the uptake of mask wearing and physical distancing within the Old Order Mennonite community has been low, says Public Heath
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Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health. Kenneth Armstrong/GuelphToday file photo

Public Health says a number of factors caused it to issue strict orders in the Old Order Mennonite community in the north part of Wellington County after a recent outbreak of COVID-19, but it is possible those cases may help to get the message across.

On Thursday, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health issued a Section 22 order, closing churches and schools in the as COVID cases grow in that community.

As of Friday Public Health is reporting 33 active cases of COVID-19 in Wellington County.

Reached by phone on Friday, associate medical officer of Health Dr. Matthew Tenenbaum told GuelphToday that Public Health has been working with the community and others like it since the pandemic began early in the spring to try and avoid exactly this kind of outbreak.

“We have been having ongoing communications since March, we have been doing education with them about COVID-19, the importance of it, why it is so severe,” said Tenenbaum. “These have been ongoing conversations for a number of months now.”

Tenenbaum said Public Health also spoke with doctors serving north Wellington County about the role they can play in communicating COVID-19 safety measures to communities like the Old Order Mennonites

"Not all members of this community have connection to primary care, but many of them do,” said Tenenbaum. 

Despite the conversations, Public Health said uptake of measures like physical distancing and mask wearing in this community has been low.

“It was because of the challenges we were having that unfortunately we had to take the step of having to issue these orders,” said Tenenbaum. 

The order forces the closure of schools and places of worship in the Old Order Mennonite community.

“This is not a step we take lightly, it is in many ways, an option of last resort and it’s something we only do when we think we have a critical threat to the community’s safety and we need immediate action,” said Tenenbaum. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s something that needs to be taken very seriously.”

Public Health has also had challenges in its case and contact management in the community.

“When we find out about a case of COVID-19 we follow up with them, we make sure they are isolating and who they were in contact with so we can inform those contacts to isolate or get tested as is appropriate for them,” said Tenenbaum. “We have had some challenges in getting that information and it has really impeded the effectiveness of our case and contact management, which we need to do to keep the community safe.” 

Tenenbaum said the fact there is now transmission within the Old Order Mennonite community may actually help to get Public Health’s message across.

“What we are hearing is the fact that there are cases in the community is understood, people understand the need for public health measures and we have had some good productive conversations with community leaders about the importance of those measures, especially now given the risk we are seeing with the cases that we know about,” said Tenenbaum.

“We are hoping those conversations lead to productive changes that allow us to reopen some of the places that are currently closed and allow us to be assured the community is being properly protected.”

Tenenbaum said the Section 22 order made under the Health Protection and Promotion Act gives Public Health a number of avenues to pursue for enforcement.

“It might involve going in front of a judge or a number escalating steps to make sure the order has the force of law,” said Tenenbaum. "What we have found in the past and what we are anticipating for this scenario is the fact there is an order will precipitate the kinds of productive conversations that get at the underlying issue.”

"We are anticipating those conversations are going to continue to be productive and the orders will eventually be rescinded when there is no longer a need for them,” he added.

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Kenneth Armstrong

About the Author: Kenneth Armstrong

Kenneth Armstrong is a news reporter and photojournalist who regularly covers municipal government, business and politics and photographs events, sports and features.
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