Sudbury

Record COVID numbers in the northeast, but officials say vaccines shielding us from the worst of this wave

COVID-19 is making a big comeback in northeastern Ontario with case counts higher now than anytime during the last 20 months of this pandemic. Some fear life will never get back to normal, but others say this latest surge doesn't set us back too far. 

Despite record COVID count, symptoms are not as severe thanks to high vaccination rates

Wolves fans wearing masks during a game at the Sudbury Arena, a few weeks before COVID cases in the city started rising again. (Erik White/CBC )

COVID-19 is making a big comeback in northeastern Ontario.

Active cases in the region have topped 400 and some districts are seeing more people test positive than any time in the last 20 months of pandemic.

"You think 'Really? Now?" says Kate Barber of Sudbury who found out she has COVID this week, a few days after her teenage son tested positive.

She says her family has dutifully followed pandemic news and COVID precautions since March 2020 and have gone for drive-through tests every time someone had minor symptoms.

Kate Barber of Sudbury has tested positive for COVID-19 a few days after her teenage son, but both are fully vaccinated and experiencing only cold symptoms so far. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

So Barber didn't expect her son's fever and cough to be COVID and then because he goes to school, has a job, plays basketball and had a recent birthday party, "all the things you hope you wouldn't have to tell the contact tracers, we did,"

"So I thought 'Oh, here we go. This is going to be very disruptive for a lot of people," she says.

"We were doing the things we were permitted to do, we were fully vaxed, so we felt reasonably confident that was OK."

Barber says staying home with cold-like symptoms she isn't too worried, although it's easy to get discouraged seeing cases spiking with high vaccination rates in Sudbury and across northern Ontario. 

"I guess it's working because I'm not terrified that I'll end up in the hospital," she says.

"I'm fearful that everything's going to shut down again and we're going to be back where we started, but not really because we have vaccines that we didn't have before. So it's not quite as scary."

Sault Ste. Marie is also seeing record COVID-19 spread, with active cases hitting 90 this week.

There are several outbreaks in the city, including at the Tenaris Algoma Tubes steel mill.

There is an outbreak of nine COVID cases at the Tenaris Tubes mill in Sault Ste. Marie and union leaders fear with only 60 per cent of workers vaccinated that number will go up. (Erik White/CBC)

Cody Alexander, president of United Steelworkers Local 9548, says nine have tested positive so far and they are waiting on results for a dozen other employees. 

"Our concern is that it's going to take right off and we're going to have dozens and dozens of sick workers," he says.

"It's really going to be a disaster and this virus will end up shutting us down."

Alexander says only about 60 per cent of the 450 workers are fully vaccinated and he's asking the company to offer incentives to get the shots and possibly shut down the mill for a few days to get everyone tested.

"A lot of these people are parents, they have vulnerable members at home. It looks like we're building a COVID hive in the west end of Sault Ste. Marie that's going to infect the entire city," he says.

The Nipissing and Parry Sound districts have also watched COVID cases climb over 50 this week for the first time.

Even the province's first variant outbreak in North Bay back in February only hit 38 cases.

The Barclay House retirement home in North Bay has seen the majority of the recent cases in the district, but most were fully vaccinated and saw no or only mild symptoms. (Google Streetview)

The epicentre of that outbreak was the apartment building where 69-year-old Joanne Valiquette lives.

"What do we do? We're never going to get rid of this virus," says the great-grandmother who has only seen her family a few times during the pandemic. 

"I feel this virus is going to take more people and I don't want to be one of those people."

Valiquette says she is extremely careful when she ventures out of her home, but is trying to find a way to live with COVID.

"I am trying not to live in fear," she says.

"If I let the fear take me over 100 per cent, I'm not going to survive it. I'm not."

Public health officials in Sudbury have brought in capacity limits for restaurants and other businesses to stop the rising number of COVID cases. (Erik White/CBC )

The majority of the recent cases in North Bay come from Chartwell's Barclay House retirement home, where so far 38 residents and two staff have tested positive.

Jody Etmanski, a staff representative with the Service Employees International Union, says a Barclay House resident went to hospital for a non-COVID reason and ended up testing positive.

That uncovered a hidden outbreak at the home, where all those infected were fully vaccinated and many had just recently taken a booster shot.

Etmanski says some have mild symptoms, but most of the COVID patients in the retirement home have noticed no illness at all. 

"My understanding is they're all doing quite well," she says.

"Fairly fortunate in that regard that it hit now and not in the first wave when weren't as prepared."

Dr. Carol Zimbalatti, a public health physician with the North Bay-Parry Sound health unit, says this outbreak is a sign that the vaccines are working.

"I was probably a bit optimistic once a vaccine was available that we'd probably be able to get control of it quickly at that point," she says.

"I think to a certain extent that is happening. Vaccination is proving to be our most powerful tool."

After 20 long months of the pandemic, staff at the Sudbury hospital are now seeing record numbers of COVID patients, although most are not in intensive care and are unvaccinated. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The regional hospital in Sudbury, Health Sciences North, is also seeing record numbers of COVID patients with about 20 admitted this week.

CEO Dominic Giroux says only a handful of those are being treated in intensive care and most of the patients are unvaccinated.

"I'm really surprised considering how well we were doing," he says. 

"It just shows you how unpredictable the virus can be and how we can't let our guard down."

Giroux's advice though is predictable after 20 months: wash your hands, stay at home if you can, get vaccinated and follow the direction of the public health unit, which recently reimposed capacity limits on certain businesses in Sudbury. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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