KITCHENER -- Waterloo Region's top doctor said more COVID-19 cases from private gatherings earlier this month will likely screen positive for a variant of concern.

On Thursday, regional officials said they'd identified a "large cluster" of COVID-19 cases linked to three private gatherings between March 4 and 7. One of the initial cases screened for a variant of concern, officials said, but the variant hasn't been identified yet.

"It is suspected the other cases will screen positive for a variant of concern," Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang said at the region's COVID-19 update on Friday.

There are 23 confirmed cases and one probable case linked to the gatherings, along with 20 close contacts.

"This is an example of how easily it can spread," Dr. Wang said.

Health officials said people at the gatherings weren't wearing masks or maintaining physical distancing. Dr. Wang said it serves as a reminder for people not to let their guard down, since variants can spread even more easily between people in situations like this one.

"We are in a risky period at this time," she said. "The variants will spread easily if we allow them."

Officials said people shouldn't be gathering with people outside of their immediate households at this time.

Dr. Wang did say current public health measures are effective at slowing the spread of variants. However, this case cluster serves as a "cautionary tale" for what can happen if people let their guard down and gather outside of their households.

"It's not OK yet," she said. "If we continue with our precautions, we'll have our best chance."

Regional officials said 17 cases are being managed locally, while seven others are from other health units. They're working with those units for case and contact tracing.


Case counts in the region remain stable right now, but Dr. Wang said this is a precarious time.

"While I am grateful that our cases are stable at this time, I'm concerned by what I am seeing in other communities across Ontario," she said.

Waterloo Region has a weekly incidence rate of 45 cases per 100,000 people.

"Our actions today informs what comes next for Waterloo Region," Dr. Wang said. "A bright future lies ahead of us, but we must not lose sight of what we need to do to get there."

Local officials are watching other regions closely.

"Following public health measures is critical in our ability to control the severity of a third wave."

Local case metrics remain on the lower end of the red "control" tier, according to Dr. Wang.


On Thursday, regional officials said the area was ready to move into Phase Two of vaccine rollout.

Staff are contacting people in the 70 to 79 age range now to book appointments, and anyone in the 80 and over age group should have their appointment booked by Saturday.

Officials encouraged people to book appointments as soon as they are eligible.

Earlier this week, Regional Chair Karen Redman said they hope to administer first doses to everyone who wants one by the end of June.