Greater Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger has called on the provincial government to create a Northern Ontario bubble to protect Northerners from COVID-19 and its new, deadlier variants.
Bigger wants to explore options to reduce travel to and from the region by establishing OPP checkpoints along Highway 69 to monitor travel, similar to what Quebec implemented last fall. He hopes that it will deter traffic between regions.
He’s supported by former Sudbury mayor and MPP Jim Gordon, who argues that the North has a higher proportion of seniors and Indigenous people than the rest of Ontario and as such, should be greater protected.
The health coalition noted the emergence of at least one variant – the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7) – in the region, which is more transmissible than the original virus. That includes an outbreak at the Skyline Lancelot Apartments in North Bay, where 19 residents and two visitors tested positive for COVID-19, with three of those “likely the U.K. variant.”
On Jan. 25, there were 38 confirmed cases of the variant in the province. As of Tuesday, there were 227 confirmed cases of the variant, according to coalition executive director Natalie Mehra, and another 200 to 300 are being investigated.
And while members of the coalition discussed a Northern Ontario bubble, they decided not to ask that one be implemented.
Mehra did call on the province to offer clearer direction to residents and businesses on what should or should not be allowed.
“We would have hoped (before) any further opening of the economy, of the schools, of more businesses, that it would be associated with clear directions from the province,” she said.
She said other countries have had to resort to “hard lockdowns” to keep the virus under control. “I am shocked to have the province reopen with no clear measures in place.
“People are in danger,” she said, and the Doug Ford government should deliver “a strong, clear message … about travel.”
“We want to make sure the communities understand the risk with travel,” Mehra said. “We are calling on the public to understand what is happening … and to curtail unnecessary travel” to stop the spread, especially as the March break nears.
The province has yet to formally announce whether the March break will take place as scheduled, or be delayed until at least April.
And if there is to be a March break, it’s even more important to urge the provincial government to implement measures that further limit numbers of people inside buildings, prevent large gatherings, enforce cleaning and sanitation regulations and issue fines for those who don’t adhere to the provincial measures, Mehra said.
She agreed people should not travel from one region to another.
“We are in even more danger now” with the variants out there, she said, and they have the potential to make the situation much, much worse.
“There is hope here. The vaccine is rolling out,” she said.
Coalition members from around the North shared their experiences with COVID-19. Nearly all the Northern Ontario chapters saw a marked increase in COVID-19 numbers over the Christmas holidays when travel and larger gatherings were held. They fear that without limits on travel, the pandemic will spread further.
“We are really concerned,” said Dorothy Klein, Sudbury Health Coalition co-chair said, pointing to the outbreak of the variant in North Bay and the fact that Sudbury is one of three major routes to Northern Ontario from the south.
There have been 546 cases of COVID-19 in the Sudbury region and 10 deaths.
“We are very concerned,” she said, sharing the advice of others that those who want to travel should just “stay home.
“We are all making a lot of concessions to this,” she said, promising that “we will get through this and we will come through much more unified.”
“Viruses don’t move. People move it,” Marie DellaVedova from the Algoma Health Coalition said.
She noted that in her region, many of the cases in both the first and second waves of the pandemic have been linked to travel.
“We know gatherings lead to exposure and spread,” she said and pointed to a high-risk exposure at a New Year’s Eve party in Sault Ste. Marie.
DellaVedova said travel restrictions, which have been in place since the pandemic began, have proven successful in the Algoma region. But she also admitted it has been “a really long, long year” with the restrictions in place.
But now is not the time to ease off, and the travel restrictions residents should be following have to remain in place.
“Don’t come up here,” Jules Tupker, chair of the Thunder Bay Health Coalition, urged. “Stay home.”
Thunder Bay has recorded 1,083 cases with 27 deaths. Twenty-four of those deaths occurred in one long-term care home.
And many of the cases recorded in the Thunder Bay area, Tupker said, were linked to travel to Winnipeg.
“We are very concerned about people moving around,” he said. “Everybody is getting a little crazy” with the stay-at-home orders, but the evidence points to people traveling for the continuing crisis.
Al Dupuis, a coalition member from Blind River, said his community has shown that “when an area is isolated, there is a marked difference in the rates of infection.”
His community had no cases “until very recently,” and the cases it has reported were associated with travel outside the region.
“We need to step up to the plate,” he said. “We need to keep it up.”