THUNDER BAY - It is no longer a matter of if but when COVID-19 is found in the city of Thunder Bay, says the chief executive officer of the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, and it will take both individual and community efforts to mitigate the spread.
“I have been moving away from considering if the pandemic will impact us here, to when it will come here,” said Janet DeMille, CEO with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit during a media conference on Thursday to provide an update on COVID-19.
“The shift in my thinking was reinforced particularly by the events of the last two weeks. I would say we are no longer in normal times. We can’t see it that way and we need to be informed and we need to prepare.”
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. There are more than 124,000 cases worldwide, including 103 cases in Canada.
The outbreak has resulted in countries being locked down such as the case in Italy, major events being suspended, and the United States banning travel from Europe.
According to DeMille, there are still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the city of Thunder Bay, though approximately 15 people have been tested, all of which came back negative.
Covid-19 would most likely come here through travel from Toronto and there is increasing concern regarding the growing number of cases in the United States.
“We have no concrete indication at this time that the virus is spreading in the community,” DeMille said. “We remain in containment mode.”
The containment phase is meant to identify individuals who may have been exposed to the virus. If so, precautions will be put in place to ensure that individual is not spreading the virus further.
“Through this kind of approach, we can limit the spread to a few closely related individuals and prevent further spread into the community,” DeMille said. “Since the start we have been working closely with the hospital to ensure good communication and collaboration so that someone who may be at risk of having Covid-19 is identified and managed appropriately.”
Testing can take between two or three days and those who do undergo testing are asked to self-isolate until the results come back.
COVID-19 can cause serious health problems for between 15 and 20 per cent of those infected, which can overwhelm the health care system, DeMille said, reiterating why it is so important to contain the spread.
“When you hear about what is happening in other areas of the world, I would have concerns about any hospital and their capacity to manage this,” she added. “I know the Thunder Bay regional is on this, they are managing it. I have met with them. We are very well connected with them. My sense is they are fairly prepared and moving forward with other activities to prepare.”
Amanda Bjorn, executive vice president of people, culture, and strategy at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, said the hospital has started its incident management system, which entails a group from across the hospital looking at its pandemic planning.
She added the hospital is currently at surge-capacity but it is planning for a potential increase in patients through its incident management system. Bjorn was not able to elaborate more on what that might look like.
Containing the spread
The impact in the Thunder Bay district can be mitigated through actions taken collectively by individuals and the community.
The Health Unit is advising people to avoid any international travel, including to the United States. Anyone returning from China, Italy, or Iran are required to contact the Health Unit within 24 hours of arrival back in Canada and should self-isolate for 14 days.
Those returning from South Korea or Japan should also monitor their health for 14 days and self-isolate if symptoms arise.
Anyone returning from all other international destinations, including the United States, should also monitor symptoms for 14 days.
“We are seeing an increase in confirmed cases and I do suspect in the next one to two weeks, the true picture of what is happening in the United States will become clearer,” DeMille said.
She is asking people to check travel advisories and be mindful before choosing to travel and be prepared if you do become sick in a foreign country and be mindful when returning to Canada.
The first case in Northern Ontario was identified in a man from Sudbury who recently returned from a convention in Toronto. More than 100 delegates from Thunder Bay also attended the conference and the Health Unit is asking those individuals to monitor symptoms.
Other steps that can be taken include deferring trips, events, and large social gatherings. It will also be up to the community to look at closing work places or schools if cases are discovered and begin to spread.
People are also encouraged to practice proper personal hygiene like covering your mouth and nose with the crux of your elbow when coughing or sneezing, regular hand washing, and avoid touching your face.
Despite the growing number of cases and the fact that COVID-19 will most likely arrive in Thunder Bay, DeMille said the risk to people in the city remains low and she is asking the public not to panic or hoard supplies, to not believe rumours circulating on social media, and to take proper precautions to protect yourself and others.
“First of all, the majority of people who get infected will have a fairly mild or moderate illness,” DeMille said. “The good news is, if you get it once, you likely won’t get it again.”
DeMille added that it is understandable to feel anxious or uncomfortable in a situation such as this, but she remains optimistic and encourages others to as well.
“I would encourage everybody to remain calm, to be mindful, and to prepare,” she said. “There is a lot of things we can do as individuals and families and as a community to prepare for this. The best news is, regardless of what happens, it will end.”
Anyone in that area experiencing symptoms such as cough, fever, or shortness of breath is being advised to contact the Thunder Bay District Health Unit at (807)-625-5900 or 1-888-294-6630 or call Telehealth at 1-866-797-0000.