KITCHENER -- Waterloo Region's top doctor said there are now more than 50 cases associated with a large cluster of cases identified from three social gatherings earlier this month.

Last week, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang identified the cluster following gatherings between March 4 to 7.

Speaking at the region's COVID-19 update on Friday, Dr. Wang said there are now 56 confirmed cases and two probable cases associated with that cluster. She added that included secondary spread in multiple settings.

There are 52 combined high-risk close contacts associated with that cluster, Dr. Wang said.

"This cluster illustrates how easily or quickly COVID-19 can spread when public health measures aren't practiced," she said. "It is a crucial reminder that we must keep up with these public health measures, especially reducing unnecessary close contacts."

One of the initial cases from the cluster screened positive for a variant of concern. Dr. Wang said last week there would likely be other variants related to the cases.

The cluster is linked to at least one outbreak at a University of Waterloo residence. The school urged students to keep following public health measures.

"We understand that everybody is struggling to keep going with these restrictions," said Nick Manning, associate vice president for communications at UW. "We want our students to know that keeping going now is important, because we could be in the home stretch."

Officials with Wilfrid Laurier University said they're also working to keep their staff and students safe during the pandemic.

“While most of our students have shown a strong sense of civic duty and followed public health guidelines over the past year, we’re very disappointed that some engaged in risky behaviour by attending these off-campus gatherings," a statement from the university said in part. "Laurier will continue to work closely with Waterloo Region Public Health officials to prevent the spread of the virus. The university has in place rigorous protocols for sanitizing and cleaning campus and all members of the Laurier community are reminded to follow public health guidelines and on-campus safety protocols to protect themselves and others.”

Speaking at Friday's update, Dr. Wang said there are more than 300 cases in the region that have screened positive for a variant of concern. Of those, 23 are confirmed to be the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the U.K., and she said she anticipates all other cases are also that variant.


Dr. Wang said cases in the region remain relatively stable at this time.

"We have not experienced the increase in cases and hospitalizations seen in Ontario overall," she said.

The region's weekly incidence rate is 38 cases per 100,000 people.

According to Dr. Wang, the province might consider moving the region into a lower tier of its colour-coded COVID-19 framework if indicators remain stable for a couple of weeks. If the rates remain stable, the region could move from the red to the orange tier in the coming weeks.


While Waterloo Region isn't experiencing the same growth as other areas in Ontario, Dr. Wang said the area is in a crucial time to slow the spread of the disease.

"We must not let our guard down," she said."We have seen what can happen, and how quickly. One case can lead to dozens."

With Easter approaching next weekend, Dr. Wang said people should only celebrate the holiday with their immediate family and hold virtual gatherings with all others.

"In limiting your close contacts, you're not only protecting yourself, you're protecting your loved ones and the community," Dr. Wang said. "COVID spreads most often to our loved ones.

"I know this is difficult, but the actions of each and every one of us can make a difference."


The region has distributed more than 66,000 doses of the vaccine so far and opened pre-registration to more priority groups on Friday.

Officials also said they're piloting a project with primary caregivers in Elmira, who will reach out to their patients directly to book vaccination appointments if they fit into one of the priority groups currently eligible for a vaccine.

Waterloo Region has yet to receive any doses of AstraZeneca, which has been piloted in pharmacies and primary care facilities in other provincial regions.

Dr. Wang said there hasn't been equitable distribution of the vaccine across the province at this time.

Regional Chair Karen Redman said Friday officials are in constant contact with the province about the vaccine.

"We have a commitment from the province that they are working as hard as they can to make it more equitable and we look forward to that," Dr. Wang said.

Dr. Wang said she hopes Waterloo Region will be the next region able to get doses of AstraZeneca.