An online news conference hosted by the Ontario Health Coalition (OHC) on Wednesday has put out the word that Northerners do not want outsiders travelling to the North and at the same time, OHC is urging Northern Ontario residents to stay in their own communities despite any new measures such as relaxed restrictions.
The OHC said this was especially important with the March Break (March 15 to 19, 2021) being a time when some Northern families plan to travel.
The OHC event was held on Zoom featuring several OHC members from across Northern Ontario to reinforce the message that as COVID-19 variants are now being discovered in several parts of Ontario said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the OHC.
"We booked this press conference because we were concerned that with the re-opening of the province and the potential for March Break with a lot of travel and the spread of the UK Variant B.1.1.7 and COVID-19 which is now in the North," said Mehra.
She added that OHC has been tracking the COVID UK Variant, also known as B.1.1.7, and said there is considerable concern. She said in late January there were 38 confirmed cases in Ontario. Things have changed, she said.
"At this point, we now have, as of yesterday (Tuesday) 227 confirmed cases of the UK Variant," said Mehra.
"There is no question now that the UK Variant is much more contagious," she added.
Mehra said the variant was traced back to September in the UK and by the second week of December, 68 per cent of all cases in the UK were the B.1.1.7 variant. She said the virus "swept through" southern England very quickly with hospitals being swamped and patients being transferred out of town to get proper care.
Mehra said there is an obvious concern among Northern Ontario members of the OHC that unless extraordinary steps are taken there is every chance a new wave of the virus could sweep the North.
She said in the first wave of the pandemic, the overall impact in Northern Ontario was small.
"Not to minimize anyone's suffering or anyone's death, but it was very small in Northern Ontario," said Mehra. She added that the second wave was worse, with many of the cases associated with travel. A lot of this happened during the Christmas and holiday winter break where Northerners travelled south and then came back home, and out outsiders travelled into the North, said Mehra.
"We want to make sure that communities understand the risk of travel at this point, which is higher than it was before and can result in really devastating consequences," she said.
Mehra reminded the audience that just since Dec. 31, almost 1,000 residents and staff in long-term care homes in Ontario have died of COVID-19. Mehra said the purpose of the news conference was to get word out to the public on the need to "stem the tide" of infections and deaths.
Calling on the public
"So we're calling on the public to really understand what is happening, what the threats are, and to really curtail travel, to curtail unnecessary travel and to try to protect Northern Ontario in the way it was protected in the first wave," said Mehra.
The conference had OHC members from around the North speaking out. Ben Lefebvre of Iroquois Falls, east of Timmins, said residents in his area so far have been lucky. Lefebvre said there have been some serious outbreaks and several deaths, but nothing on the scale that has been seen in Southern Ontario.
He endorsed Mehra's message about the need for people to avoid travel.
"We can't afford, simply can't afford to have people coming up from Southern Ontario. And of course we have the same issue of people from the North visiting family down south," said Lefebvre.
"We want to protect ourselves and I think it's only fair that Northern Ontario should have that kind of protection I suppose and the only way we're going to get that is by requesting the respect from other people who are going to travel or planning on travelling to hopefully just stay home, particularly for the upcoming March Break," said Lefebvre.
Also speaking out was Maria DellaVedova of Sault Ste. Marie representing the Algoma Health Coalition, who said it was appropriate to point out something she had recently heard.
"The virus doesn't move. People move it," said DellaVedova.
"What follows then is that if we stop moving, the virus stops moving," she added.
She added that she recognizes it has been a long year and so many people are yearning to live their lives as they did before the pandemic, "but it's not a good enough reason to let our guard down now. People's lives hang in the balance," she added.
From the Northwestern part of the province, the group heard from Jules Tupker, the co-chair of the Thunder Bay Health Coalition.
"We are very concerned about the travel and people moving around," said Tupker.
He said there have been 27 deaths in his area and 24 of those deaths were in one single long-term care home, something Tupker described as "troublesome."
He added that during the second wave of the pandemic, many of the infections were the result of Thunder Bay residents travelling to Winnipeg.
"We here in Thunder Bay are always concerned about people moving around," he said.
Tupker said he has spoken with friends and admits "everyone is getting a little crazy" from having to hang around the house and not to go visiting. He said it is still important not to travel and he urged people to tough it out.
Albert Dupuis, an OHC spokesperson in Blind River, said there is a marked difference in the rate of infection when a community is geographically isolated, such as his community on the north shore of Lake Huron. Dupuis also said he can understand the skepticism people have when there are inconsistent messages coming from Queen's Park.
But he added that with the arrival of the UK Variant in Ontario, it is important for residents in all parts of the province to hang in and stay put.
Representing the OHC in Sudbury was Dot Klein who voiced concern about the variant being introduced into several communities in the North and near to the North. She said too many communities in the south are just a few hours drive away from Sudbury and it would not be difficult to bring more cases of the virus back to the North.
"So stay in your own region," Klein told the meeting.
In a media question period after the statements, OHC rep Tupker was pressed on whether he endorses the idea of "a northern bubble".
Tupker said the Northern reps had discussed the idea, but concluded it was not workable.
"That's a difficult situation to police," said Tupker.
"We think we're better off just basically avoiding the bubble at this point," said Tupker.
He said the best advice is to ask people to cooperate and make sure they understand the importance of staying at home.
Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. He covers health care in Northern Ontario.