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Northern Ontario health regions on high alert amid climbing COVID-19 cases

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: South African COVID-19 variant identified in North Bay, Ont. outbreak' Coronavirus: South African COVID-19 variant identified in North Bay, Ont. outbreak
The South African variant of COVID-19 has been confirmed in an outbreak in North Bay, Ont., which has seen 20 confirmed cases with a variant of concern. The community has seen an outbreak at an apartment building with at least 18 confirmed variant cases – Feb 14, 2021

Northern Ontario is on high alert amid a rise in COVID-19 cases that has hit the homeless community in the Thunder Bay area particularly hard.

The health unit covering the northern city returned to a lockdown this week after reporting more COVID-19 cases last month than in all of 2020.

Read more: North Bay health unit confirms 2nd variant type in region

Since then, other health units and community leaders have expressed concern at virus trends within their areas and encouraged vigilance among residents to keep spread at a minimum.

The Northwestern Health Unit, which covers the city of Kenora and other areas, said earlier this week that it was closely watching the situation in Thunder Bay.

It also asked people to avoid travel to that city and reduce contact with others for two weeks after returning home if they do.

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The health unit said it is meeting with regional partners this week to discuss new measures to prevent the virus from spreading among the homeless population.

COVID-19 outbreaks among the homeless population and at a correctional facility have put pressure on an isolation centre in Thunder Bay that offers space for people who have been exposed to or infected with COVID-19.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Thunder Bay, Simcoe-Muskoka move back into lockdown' Coronavirus: Thunder Bay, Simcoe-Muskoka move back into lockdown
Coronavirus: Thunder Bay, Simcoe-Muskoka move back into lockdown – Mar 1, 2021

Nancy Black of St. Joseph’s Care Group, which operates the centre, said demand for beds has recently skyrocketed.

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She said the centre was operating with between 15 and 20 beds over the last 11 months, but in the last five weeks it has been operating at close to 100 beds. She said some of the people who have used the centre recently include those released from local jails dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks and the homeless.

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She said more staff were redeployed from within the care group and other local agencies to keep the centre running. The shelter has asked the federal government for funding to meet the demand, which is expected to persist for weeks or months.

Black said fatigue is setting in after a year of the pandemic, but the health-care community is pulling together to meet local needs.

“It’s challenging for everyone,” she said. “Isolation is not a fun thing to do. Nobody likes to be alone, and it’s hard on people to be separated from people that they love and their friends and family for a period of time.”

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler is also pushing for more support going to isolation spaces and shelters.

Read more: Toronto, Peel, North Bay-Parry Sound COVID-19 shutdown extended to March 8, York to enter red zone

He said many of the people impacted by the current community outbreak in Thunder Bay are members of the 49 First Nations communities his organization represents. He said that’s leading to spread between people in those communities..

There were 389 active COVID-19 cases in Thunder Bay as of Wednesday, and Fiddler said that based on conversations with other chiefs, he estimates that First Nations people from NAN communities make up a large percentage of the cases.

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Fiddler is also calling for a lockdown for the entire northwestern Ontario region — not just Thunder Bay.

“We need to take those drastic measures,” Fiddler said in a phone interview. “This fire is becoming bigger and bigger, and if nothing drastic changes, it’s going to become a roaring fire soon. And I’m not hearing any sirens.”

Public health officials elsewhere in northern Ontario have also sounded the alarm. The top doctor in the Sudbury area said Tuesday that public health measures may need to increase following a record-setting day of cases.

The health unit said there are currently outbreaks in institutional and care settings, and nearly 30 confirmed cases of new COVID-19 variants believed to be more infectious.

“We all need to heed the alarm that this news is sounding,” Dr. Penny Sutcliffe said in a Tuesday statement. “With this surge in cases, our community is also experiencing outbreaks in schools and in settings where people are vulnerable.”

Sutcliffe said it is “mission-critical” for all residents to take caution and protect each other as the region’s vaccine rollout picks up speed.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 outbreak in North Bay, Ontario linked to new variant' COVID-19 outbreak in North Bay, Ontario linked to new variant
COVID-19 outbreak in North Bay, Ontario linked to new variant – Feb 10, 2021

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