Island COVID numbers highest-ever in pandemic

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MANITOULIN—Several COVID-19 outbreaks on Manitoulin Island have led to precautions on school buses, a return to online learning and requests for residents to once again stay at home with the exception of essential travel. As of press time Monday, Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) was reporting 93 active cases of COVID-19, though the total number of active cases on Manitoulin Island remains unclear due to inconsistencies in data collection.

On Monday, Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) principal David Wiwchar shared a letter from the director of education with students and parents regarding a confirmed case at the school. The individual is currently self-isolating and being monitored by PHSD. The school remains open for in-person learning.

PHSD first notified the public of a potential high-risk exposure to COVID-19 for anyone who attended a private gathering at Sheguiandah First Nation roundhouse from November 27 to 29. Anyone who was present on these dates, regardless of vaccination status, was advised to immediately self-isolate and seek testing at a local assessment centre. The exposure was linked to a breakthrough case, meaning a fully vaccinated individual.

Mnaamodzawin Health Services in Aundeck Omni Kaning has been working closely with Indigenous Services Canada and PHSD to conduct contact tracing for known exposures, with Mnaamodzawin offering testing to affected individuals within their service areas on or after day seven days from the last known exposures or if individuals are experiencing symptoms.

PHSD listed 93 active cases as of press time Monday, December 6 (PHSD does not report on weekends) and M’Chigeeng Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige said Monday evening that there were seven active cases in her community. Wiikwemkoong added 14 on December 4, another case on December 5, and 38 on December 6, bringing the number of active cases in Wiikwemkoong to 90.

There has been some confusion expressed on social media over the discrepancy between the number of Island COVID-19 cases being reported by PHSD and those cases being reported by Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territories. In conversation with The Expositor, a person with knowledge about some of the context behind the discrepancy explained that the central issue revolves around recognition of Wiikwemkoong’s test processing lab by the health unit. Although the Wiikwemkoong lab is staffed with fully qualified personnel, the protocols around recognition of a lab by PHSD have separated the two results, for the most part.

Talks are underway to have the two sets of figures reconciled and a meeting was to be held this Tuesday to see if Wiikwemkoong’s lab can be certified, thereby removing any confusion or seemingly contradictory reports.

Ogimaa-kwe Debassige said cases reported in First Nations may see a lag before the figures reach PHSD daily totals.

The testing in Wiikwemkoong’s communities is aimed at maintaining safety and security for their residents, noted the band official, and will continue regardless of the outcome of the meeting with PHSD, but officials hope that in the interests of the public safety and clarity an accommodation can be found to reconcile the two sets of numbers.

In a December 3 Facebook message, Wiikwemkoong Ogimaa Duke Peltier asked community members to stay home and announced an extension of online learning at all Wiikwemkoong schools. Laptop distribution will be staggered this week for the high school and Pontiac School.

“It’s getting a little bit tougher to talk to you about what’s going on in our community,” he said. “We’re asking people to not gather. Please stay home. This is the only way we, as a community, will reduce the exposure of COVID-19 in the community.”

“Also, I have become aware that there are some community members who are not practicing kindness to each other, and to our staff who have been working around the clock to protect and provide for our community,” continued Ogimaa Peltier. “This is also unacceptable. Now is the time that we come together to support one another.”

He asked that people have patience due to the number of cases. “Our food security team is currently serving 400 individuals. They will get to you. As well as the contact tracing, they’re trying to get information to as many individuals as possible.”

He noted it was reassuring that testing opportunities were being taken up by the community. Close to 200 COVID-19 tests were completed on Tuesday, November 30 and there was capacity for 300 appointments for drive-through testing on Friday.

Wiikwemkoong’s crisis team is available 24/7 at 705-348-1937 if someone needs to talk.

Ogimaa-kwe Debassige asked those who must self-isolate to please contact the health centre and she thanked health staff for working diligently over the weekend.

“We offer prayers and thoughts for those who are impacted, and pray for a speedy recovery,” she said.

Several students from Sheshegwaning and Zhiibaahaasing First Nations attend Lakeview School in M’Chigeeng or MSS. Two students were considered ‘contacts of contacts’ and are being tested for the virus but an early bus pick up at MSS on Friday, December 5 was not connected to COVID, said Sheshegwaning Director of Education Robert Beaudin. “We are following standard protocols,” he stated.

“We’re protected by a bubble but that can also work against us if it gets into the community,” Mr. Beaudin said. “It would be easily spread. We’re being vigilant.”

PHSD reminds everyone to follow public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including the more transmissible variants of concern. Using layers of protection, including the above as well as vaccination, limiting close contacts to household members, working from home and staying home from work or school when ill helps to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 or experiencing severe symptoms.