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In a cautionary tale about the way COVID-19 can proliferate when people let down their guard, a new study shows how a wedding held in rural Maine on Aug. 7 turned into a superspreader event that killed seven people – not one of whom attended the marriage.

It wasn’t a big wedding – just 55 attendees. And it took place in a state that, at the time, was seeing fewer than 20 new cases of COVID-19 a day. But at least 177 cases of the disease have now been linked to it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Everything looked good at first. The bride, groom and their families flew in from California and, as required by Maine’s rules, immediately underwent COVID-19 tests. All came back negative, which meant the seven of them didn’t have to go into quarantine.

But one of the local guests turned out to be an asymptomatic carrier of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The day after the wedding, that person reported the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Within two weeks, 27 of 55 wedding attendees had tested positive. Thirty people who weren’t part of the wedding – staff, other customers of the venue and their contacts – were also infected. One of them died.

But that was just the beginning. Another guest infected at the wedding spent time in the following days with the parents of someone who worked in a long-term care home, and that worker also became infected. The infected worker subsequently reported to work in spite of showing symptoms and transmitted the disease to 13 staff members and 24 residents – six of whom died.

Yet another wedding guest worked in a prison; he or she too went to work despite showing early symptoms of COVID-19. By Sept. 1, 17 more staff members and 46 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, none of them required hospitalization.

In Canada, the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 is built on multiple pillars. The federal government, for instance, is providing financial support to encourage people to stay home from work if they have symptoms of COVID-19.

As well, provincial and local governments are setting rules to limit indoor gatherings, and making physical-distancing recommendations appropriate to each region.

That last part hasn’t been going so well lately, with case counts and deaths surging in many parts of the country as a consequence. Ontario, in particular, botched its rollout of a new colour-coded system for deciding when to impose or lift restrictions, and had to do a complete rethink last week.

But it’s not just on governments to slow this pandemic. Individual Canadians have to do their part, and unfortunately not everyone is.

In Manitoba, where the province is recommending that people stay home, one man who tested positive last week had 85 recent contacts.

Large family gatherings at Thanksgiving last month likely contributed to the current surge in cases across most of Canada, in spite of warnings of the risks involved. The celebration of Diwali over the past weekend will probably produce a similar outcome in two weeks. And Christmas is coming.

The guests and members of the wedding party in Maine were no doubt caring and responsible adults who just wanted to celebrate a special day with friends and family. They bet that the odds were in their favour. And they were right: None of them is among the dead.

But they chose not to physically distance or wear masks at the wedding reception, and staff didn’t ask them to, even though that was the venue’s policy.

No one wants to be a party pooper. Except that, had the wedding’s so-called “index patient” worn a mask and kept their distance, the long chain of outbreaks and deaths that fanned outward from one infected person would almost certainly not have occurred.

And if that person had skipped the wedding? Or if there had been no wedding? No chance of infection.

Governments have to make rules to stem the pandemic, and they have to enforce them. But in a free society, there is no way to police every person’s every move. The choice to take precautions to protect others, or to not, comes down to each one of us.

It’s the job of politicians to organize an effective war against the virus, but it’s up to Canadians to fight the little, unheralded battles that will make all the difference.

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