COVID-19 cases surge in First Nations in northwestern Ontario amid 7th wave

With lockdowns lifted and travel opening up, some First Nations in northwestern Ontario are seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases, just as the province’s seventh wave takes hold.

There are 514 active cases in the region, a big jump from 124 reported just two weeks ago, said Dr. Lloyd Douglas, public health physician with the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority. 

“We’re now experiencing a surge in cases in three of our communities,” said Douglas. 

About 450 of the 514 active cases are in Sandy Lake, Webequie and Poplar Hill, the health authority says.

The spike in cases comes as public health officials in Ontario announced the province has officially entered its seventh wave, driven this time by the Omicron BA.5 subvariant. 

“Sadly yes, we’re in another wave,” Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer, told CBC News on Wednesday after Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table pointed to exponential growth in most public health units. 

Douglas said a number of factors are at work that would explain the rise in remote communities in northwestern Ontario. 

“The regional chiefs rescinded the regional lockdown several weeks ago,” he said. “Travel is now reopened, and we have members of the community, rightfully so, travelling, getting their business done and coming back to the community.

“Unfortunately, individuals would have gotten COVID and then be coming back,” Douglas said, adding that post-travel screening and quarantine policies are still in effect.

Still, Douglas said, the case numbers are rising due to variants and waning immunity from vaccines.

“Even though the fourth dose has been available for community members for quite some time, the actual fourth-dose coverage is not where we would like it to be in comparison to … the second-dose coverage,” he said. “So there are multiple factors that have led to the uptake in some of our communities, and we expected to see a little bit of a surge after the communities would have opened up a bit.”

Other measures remain in place, including a recommendation to wear masks indoors and social distancing. Antiviral treatments are also available in communities for high-risk individuals, Douglas said.

However, that’s being offset by a lack of health-care providers, which is a particular problem in communities with high case counts.

“In terms of the services that would be provided at the nursing station, that could come down to just the emergency services and urgent services,” Douglas said. “Some services may fall along the wayside. But thankfully we have not heard of any nursing station closed at this time.”

Surge hasn’t materialized in Thunder Bay — yet 

In the Thunder Bay area, meanwhile, there were 88 confirmed cases of the virus, according to Thursday morning’s update from the Thunder Bay District Health Unit. Of those, 22 were in hospital and four in the intensive-care unit.

Dr. Janet DeMille, Thunder Bay’s medical officer of health, said Thursday she doesn’t expect Ontario to issue any further mask mandates, unless a new variant suddenly appears.

But masking recommendations will likely remain in place, DeMille said.

“We do have a lot of measures that are in place, and it’s sort of those layers of protection,” DeMille said. “One example that I’m thinking of is, we are doing a lot of work with various congregate living settings around infection prevention and control measures.

“Certainly, I still encourage people to wear a mask when they’re in indoor public spaces. I’m reviewing stuff around … indoor ventilation, just because that can really help without actually expecting people to do any anything like a mask.”

DeMille said moving forward will involve finding the right balance and adjusting anti-COVID measures as needed, based on what’s happening with the virus itself.

For example, DeMille said, there have been cases of variant BA.5 confirmed in the region: two of 34 samples analyzed during the week of June 5 to 11 were confirmed to be that variant.

DeMille said she expects more cases of BA.5 to show up in the area, as it seems to be “more transmissible” than previous variants.

“As far as I’ve seen, it’s very similar symptoms. So the usual fever, chills, potentially cough, sore throat kind of thing and fatigue, and muscle aches and pains.

“I don’t see evidence that it is actually more severe than BA.1 or BA.2,” DeMille said. “There are still going to be people that will be hospitalized.

“I do expect with a wave that the hospitalization numbers would go up, still some people that will likely require ICU,” she said. “But it does not seem to be worse than being one or two — at least what we know right now.”

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