Sudbury

Porcupine health district to stay in lockdown while rest of Ontario enjoys patios, shopping

Restaurant patios, retail shops and provincial parks set to open across the north Friday as Ontario emerges from the latest COVID lockdown. The one exception is the Porcupine health unit, which has the highest infection rate in the province.

Porcupine health district has one of the highest infection rates in the province

The Porcupine Health District, including Timmins, Kapuskasing, Hearst and the James Bay Coast, will be the only part of Ontario staying closed on Friday. (Erik White/CBC )

While the rest of province is looking forward to sitting on patios and shopping inside stores, one corner of northern Ontario is still dealing with COVID-19's latest comeback.

The Porcupine Health Unit has over 300 active cases and has said it will order that doors stay closed in Timmins, Kapuskasing, Hearst, Cochrane, Iroquois Falls and in the remote communities of the James Bay Coast.

"Without a doubt it's frustrating for everybody. The longer this goes on the more frustrating and confusing it is for every citizen," says Timmins Mayor George Pirie.

"But now is the time to pull together and get past this."

When he declared a state of emergency a few weeks ago, Pirie stated that vaccine hesitancy was a major issue in Timmins, but he says that has melted away. 

Business leaders in Timmins say there is 'no light at the end of the tunnel' and want public health officials to give some idea of when the city will re-open. (Erik White/CBC )

"Not now. I think that the delta variant got everybody's attention. We're not having any problem with that. The clinics are fully booked," he says.

Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lianne Catton is expected to make official comments on the provincial re-opening Thursday afternoon, but business leaders are calling on her to give some idea as to when Timmins might join the rest of the province.

Chamber of commerce president Melanie Verreault would like the health unit to lay out vaccination rate or infection rate targets that need to be achieved before the Porcupine health district moves onto step one.

"There's no light at the end of the tunnel," she says. 

Verreault says benchmarks would encourage citizens to follow the rules, allow businesses to prepare and stop people tempted to drive to nearby northern cities for shopping and dining, which could spread the virus further.

"I just want to make sure that we don't repeat history. Certainly I'd like us to be able to stay here and deal with our situation for sure. And just to hang tight a little bit longer," she says.

The mayor of Timmins says vaccine hesitancy has faded away in the face of the delta variant of COVID-19 and clinics, like this pop-up one in a grocery store parking lot, are now busy. (Porcupine Health Unit )

More than half of the COVID cases in the health district are in the remote communities of the James Bay Coast.

Lynne Innes, CEO of the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, says most of those testing positive now are children, who were not part of the mass vaccination this winter.

She says there is now a push this week to get shots into the arms of those aged 12 to 17, with Peawanuck hitting an 86 per cent vaccination rate in that age group already.

But Innes says isolating the sick is the biggest challenge on the coast, where there are often more than a dozen people and multiple generations of the same family living under one roof.

Lynne Innes is the president and CEO of the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority. (Submitted by Lynne Innes)

"We are not going to vaccinate our way out of this crisis," she says.

"So we have reason to expect our numbers to continue to rise until we can contain and control the virus."

The federal government is sending isolation units, trailers with multiple compartments, to the remote James Bay First Nations and says it has provided millions in funding to these communities during the pandemic. 

But Kashechewan, which has seen its COVID count shoot up to 70 in less than a week, has called for the Canadian military to come in and help. 

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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