SUDBURY – Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD), which includes Manitoulin Island, moved into the grey-lockdown portion of Ontario’s colour-coded pandemic restriction model at midnight on Friday, March 12, on a day when the region saw a daily increase of 55 new COVID-19 cases. The total active case count as of press time Monday, March 15, stands at one on Manitoulin and 234 in the City of Greater Sudbury.
“On the public health system front, I can tell you that we are nearing our human limit as it relates to our ability to literally respond to cases and contacts and to deliver vaccine,” said Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, medical officer of health with PHSD. She said she has been working with neighbouring public health units and Public Health Ontario for extra support.
“By (March 10), we had 841 cases in total reported (since the start of the pandemic a year ago), but more importantly, 25 percent or a quarter of the cases we’ve ever seen have occurred in the last two weeks alone,” she said.
The health unit hosted a virtual press conference last Thursday afternoon to address the news that the region would move that night into Ontario’s second-most restrictive pandemic control zone (behind a full stay-at-home order). Fifteen people have died of COVID-19 in the PHSD area in the past year.
There are several factors contributing to the recent sharp increase in total case numbers but Dr. Sutcliffe said the most concerning reason was a rise in variants of concern (VOCs). These include three fully genome-sequenced cases confirmed to be the B.1.1.7 variant, but there are another approximately 100 cases that have screened positive as being variants.
In the past week, about half of the new confirmed cases in the PHSD region have been VOCs.
Provincial modeling suggests that VOCs will become the predominant strains of COVID-19 in Ontario, something Dr. Sutcliffe said she did not anticipate in the PHSD area.
However, the variants continue to spread the same way as the original COVID-19 strain, meaning the same preventive measures can keep people safe—frequent handwashing, reducing social contacts, avoiding non-essential travel, remaining physically distanced from others and wearing a multi-layer face mask.
Anyone with even a single symptom of the illness should self-isolate and get tested if possible; all members of their household should stay home until the test results come back.
VOCs have sharply increased the rate of new cases in the health district this month. Between March 3 and 9, that rate increased by 54.1 percent to 75.9 cases per 100,000 people.
That increase led PHSD to close all schools in the district to in-person learning, except in Chapleau. Some 13 schools have had declared outbreaks in the district, for a total of 123 cases.
“Schools, to be clear, are a reflection of what happens in the community. They’re not the cause of the problems but what’s circulating in the community impacts on our schools,” said Dr. Sutcliffe, stressing that she believes in the benefits of maximizing in-person learning opportunities.
“None of these decisions are taken lightly. We have regular communications with the directors of education and others in administration in the school boards. It’s been a difficult time for everybody but our commitment has been to protect in-person learning as long as we can—that’s contingent on keeping levels low in the community,” she said.
She also shared a chart that shows that household cases traced directly to schools and school outbreaks are increasing, and will likely continue to rise as investigations continue. Outbreaks have also been linked to fitness centres and social gatherings in the area.
In response to a question about whether enforcement measures have been sufficient, she said enforcement is only one part of the effort and the community needs to co-operate and do their part to help stop the spread.
Dr. Sutcliffe said public health teams have been working seven days per week to investigate and trace the sources of infections, and the onus is on all residents to abide by public health best practices, including working from home wherever possible and minimizing travel, to further minimize the risk of the third wave exhausting health care resources.
“Your public health staff are certainly an army, a group of people of which you can be extremely proud for getting us this far and for ultimately getting us out of this pandemic,” Dr. Sutcliffe said.
Any eligible residents on Manitoulin (including higher-priority health care workers, adults born in 1941 or earlier and recipients of chronic home care) who wish to register for the vaccine should visit SurveyMonkey.ca/r/vaccineappointment.
The first two public clinics to take place on Manitoulin for eligible members of the general public will take place this week.