OTTAWA -- Mayor Jim Watson has declared a state of emergency in Ottawa because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watson made the announcement at City Council Wednesday.

"Declaring a state of emergency will help our City Manager, Steve Kanellakos, and his team deploy our emergency operations in a quicker and more nimble fashion," Watson said.

Watson said the declaration will also enable the City to more easily buy medical equipment.

Ottawa Public Health is investigating 25 confirmed and 13 indeterminate cases of COVID-19 in the city. Ontario's Ministry of Health has reported 27 confirmed cases in Ottawa, as of their most recent update at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

"We're moving to this state of emergency to ensure that we have the tools available to protect our healthcare workers and our residents."

The Province of Ontario declared a state of emergency last week.

"It is crucial that we, as a community, follow the direction from our federal, provincial, and municipal health officials if we want to be successful in this fight. We are asking residents to do the same: stay home. Don't meet up with family and friends; don't go out, unless it's an essential errand like groceries or medication; and, if you do go out for those essential errands or to get fresh air, please keep your distance and wash your hands when you get home," Watson said.

'We're seeing the tip of the iceberg': Etches

In her address to council, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said the cases that have been confirmed so far are showing a snapshot of the past, and there will be more to come.

"We know there's a time lag when these reports come in. They reflect infections that have probably happened ten to 14 days earlier," Dr. Etches said. "It's one picture of what happened in the past and we know it's an imperfect picture."

She says Ottawa Public Health is seeing more confirmed cases with no link to travel, which shows the virus is spreading in the community.

"Those confirmed cases are what you might call the tip of the iceberg," Dr. Etches said. "We know there are other people to think about: those who have been tested and are awaiting results are much greater in number; those who have symptoms and have been recommended they get testing is a greater number; people who have symptoms and who are not presenting for testing or who are not in the category where testing is recommended is a larger number; and we know the actual rate of infection is even greater in our community."

The Ministry of Health is currently investigating 10,489 cases of COVID-19 in Ontario. 

"There are asymptomatic infections, there are people with very mild infections who might not think this is COVID-19, and there are people who are incubating their infections—they have not identified that yet," Dr. Etches said.

Dr. Etches said OPH staff have followed up with about 1,500 people through contact tracing, by talking to as many close contacts to every identified case as possible.

"When we have an identified case, we ask that person about all of their activities and who might be a close contact to that case," she said. "The average number of contacts for one case is 16 at this point. That's what we're trying to change."

OPH has increased the number of staff who do contact tracing from 10 to 60 in recent days.

'A very unique situation': Kanellakos

City Manager Steve Kanellakos says the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything he's ever seen.

"This is the first time I can remember in the 25 years I've been involved in emergencies that it's very difficult to project what the circumstances are going to be to be able to mitigate this and what steps will have to be taken to recover," he said. "This is a very unique situation compared to things like ice storms, multi-day blackouts, floods, and tornadoes. We were heavily involved in SARS and H1N1 and we learned a lot from that, but this is very different."

Kanellakos said the COVID-19 situation is changing day-to-day, putting stress on the City's ability to make plans.

The City Manager laid out a timeline of how Ottawa has responded to COVID-19:

  • January 23: City begins monitoring global spread of COVID-19 in conjunction with Ottawa Public Health
  • March 5: City enters enhanced operations and engages City departments to prepare for the arrival of the virus
  • March 11: First case of COVID-19 is confirmed in Ottawa; City activates emergency operations centre
  • March 12: Province announces schools will be closed until at least April 6; City recommends staff work from home
  • March 13: City announces pending closure of rec centres, cultural facilities, community centres, libraries, and events with more than 250 people
  • March 17: Ontario declares state of emergency; City announces further closures to counter services and restricts access to visitors at long-term care homes; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces $82-billion aid package
  • March 18: Canada/US border closure to non-essential traffic announced
  • March 23: Ontario announces closure of all non-essential businesses on March 25; Premier says schools are not likely to reopen April 6 – details to follow
  • March 25: City of Ottawa declares state of emergency; non-essential businesses in Ontario shut down; federal government passes $82-billion aid package