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Zalan: We need a Northern Bubble now and a ring around Barrie

Sudbury doctor says a the province should follow the lead of New Zealand, which put a ring of police around the capital Auckland, to contain the new coronavirus variant to Barrie and prevent it from coming north

“This progressed so rapidly.” Dr Gardner, the medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, was commenting on the extraordinary speed at which the new variant has spread.

He confirmed that testing of residents and staff in the Roberta Place Long Term Care Home in Barrie, has identified the B.1.1.7 variant, the so-called UK coronavirus variant. The outbreak has spread to all but two of its 127 residents. Eighty-four staff members have also tested positive. Thirty-two people have died (as of publication).

The health unit has not confirmed the source of the outbreak, but did note that a staff member who had close contact with someone who travelled abroad is suspected of carrying the variant into the home.

As of Jan. 16, eligible residents of all long-term-care facilities in Simcoe Muskoka District had received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. It is estimated that it takes about two weeks after the first injection to render one immune. According to Pfizer, its vaccine is roughly 52 per cent effective after the first of the two recommended doses.

A second, long-term care home in the same district has now reported an outbreak of the B.1.1.7 variant. This is scary news. What if it gains a strong foothold in Ontario? 

This is a race between the virus, the vaccine and the public health measures that we take to protect our communities. According to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it will be late in September before the vaccine becomes available to all who want it. In the meantime, today, the single most important new measures that governments must take is all about controlling travel.

Northern mayors have discussed the feasibility of establishing a Northern Bubble, copying the Atlantic Bubble that has proved so successful in protecting those provinces. They have concluded that cities have no authority to close highways, nor possess the resources to make it happen. At the least, the mayors should be pressuring the province to enforce travel restrictions which require people, with certain exceptions, to stay in their own region and province.

As part of the recent stay-at-home order, Ontarians have been instructed not to travel outside their region or the province unless absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, police were not given the authority to stop vehicles to ensure compliance. This is indeed unfortunate because roughly 1.2 million people in Canada spent at least one night away from home over the holidays, even as governments were urging people not to congregate.

To consider what can be done, look at New Zealand and Australia. These countries are successful democracies which, nonetheless, have enforced strict restrictions on travel. In both countries, the number of new daily cases is now under one per 100,000, while Canada’s infection rate is more than 20 times higher. Six new cases in New Zealand in one day with a population of five million — as of Jan. 26, 1,740 new cases in Ontario with a population of 15 million.

In August, New Zealand activated the country’s outbreak plan following the confirmation of new cases of COVID-19 in Auckland, the country's largest city.** To ensure the infection did not spread beyond the city, there was a ring of police imposed around Auckland. Contact tracing found the virus in stores, schools and churches. 

Barrie is now the hotspot of the UK variant in Ontario. The city sits in the perfect spot with highways leading directly to the major population centres of the province and to the North. To give it the best shot that the B.1.1.7 variant does not spread beyond the city, the province should impose a ring of police around Barrie immediately. Immediately, because this virus spreads so quickly.

Australia requires returning travellers to self-isolate at government-supervised facilities. Canadian travellers returning to Canada by air are permitted to self-isolate at home. This measure has not kept the variant virus out of our country. The federal government must ensure that travellers arriving from outside the country self-isolate in a government-supervised facility.

The take-home message is that while we await widespread vaccination for COVID-19, our provincial and federal governments must enforce no-nonsense travel restrictions immediately. 

Authorize a police ring around Barrie, barring travel in and out of the city, except for essential exceptions

Ensure that travellers arriving from outside the country self-isolate in a government-supervised facility.

Dr. Peter Zalan is past president of the medical staff at Health Sciences North. His monthly column tackles issues in health care from a local perspective.

**An earlier version of this article stated Auckland was the capital of New Zealand, instead of its largest city. The capital of New Zealand is, of course, Wellington.