UPDATED: Sudbury public health chief says COVID-19 still in containment, despite positive test

Updated Wednesday, March 11, 2020, at 2:11 pm – “I am confirming that based on our investigations so far, the individual was not infectious while attending the PDAC 2020 conference March 2 and 3 in Toronto,” said Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, Sudbury & District Medical Officer of Health. “Our working hypothesis at this time is that this individual was exposed to COVID-19 while at the conference and therefore we are advising those who attended the conference to monitor for symptoms for 14 days since leaving this event,” said Dr. Sutcliffe.

SUDBURY—Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) held a press conference Wednesday morning following the Tuesday night announcement that a Sudbury-area man in his 50s tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference on March 2 and 3 in Toronto.

“I just want to reiterate that we’re still very much in containment mode in this province and our area. What is very important is that we identify these cases and take further action to contain and limit the spread,” said Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, medical officer of health for PHSD.

The man in question travelled to Toronto to be a delegate at the early March convention, returned to Sudbury on the 4th and was back at work on Thursday the 5th and Friday the 6th.  He drove back north using his personal vehicle.

He checked into Health Sciences North (HSN) on Saturday, March 8 complaining of difficulty breathing and a cough. HSN was prepared to safely assess and process any patients who presented with possible COVID-19 symptoms.

The man has been in self-isolation since Saturday.

The health agency received the positive test result Tuesday night, March 10, and has been working on its investigation to identify any close contacts of this individual, co-workers or anyone connected to the household. Anyone deemed to be at risk by PHSD will be contacted directly and given advice about what they should do next.

PHSD has been investigating alongside Toronto Public Health to determine where the individual was within the city and the activities in which he took part during the event. This conference is an international event that draws representation from several countries.

Although Dr. Sutcliffe said she did not know the exact number of people from Northeastern Ontario who attended the conference, she expected it to be in the hundreds.

“I do know this conference is very important for the North and many Northerners attend the conference on an annual basis,” she said.

Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha was one of the Northerners who went to the conference. He contacted The Expositor shortly after the PHSD press conference to say that although he has not been feeling any symptoms of the coronavirus, he phoned the health unit first thing that morning and was awaiting a screening call back. He skipped Wednesday morning’s Question Period as a precautionary measure.

“With constituency week next week, I want to make sure I don’t have anything that could make people sick,” he said.

PHSD held a planning event on Monday, March 9 with its stakeholders, education associations, paramedics and other municipal partners during which they discussed this possible scenario and how they should prepare.

The health unit has also joined a regional body, in which Dr. Sutcliffe serves as one of four co-chairs, to help co-ordinate the actions of the healthcare system in the catchment area. The group shares information, advice and best practices related to controlling the spread of this disease.

The front line for testing this disease within the PHSD area is hospital emergency departments, unlike the designated COVID-19 testing clinics that have been established in dense population centres like Toronto. Hospitals are best suited to handle these cases in Northern and rural areas because they already have precautions in place to guard against airborne contamination.

“We are all very aware of how busy our EDs are. We’re taking many actions to try to get established in another site for testing so individuals will not be having to present in EDs, as is currently the case in our area,” said Dr. Sutcliffe.

As for the workplace of this positive-tested individual, which he attended for two days before being tested, PHSD did not advise its closure. Instead, it advised a thorough cleaning and additional precautions moving forward. Dr. Sutcliffe said PHSD is following up with the individual through daily phone calls to monitor his progress. They are not concerned about him breaking his self-isolation.

This case is unique in that this individual has not travelled outside of Canada and is not known to have any contacts who may have left the country, which would make him Ontario’s first confirmed case of community transmission. One other case of community transmission has been confirmed in Canada, in British Columbia.

On Manitoulin Island, municipal and health care leaders have shared concerns about how action plans designed for cities like Sudbury may not work well in rural environments. Most notable is their advice to not visit a hospital if one is experiencing coronavirus symptoms unless they are also having trouble breathing or feel their health is in jeopardy.

“There were some interesting ideas, like adopting a Korean model where people are self-isolated in their cars to be checked,” Northeast Town Mayor Al MacNevin told The Expositor following the meeting.

For a recap of that health summit and its outcomes, please see the story on the front page of this week’s Expositor, ‘Island health professionals exploring innovative response to COVID-19.’