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COVID-19 variant of concern first detected in Brazil reported by Northwestern Health Unit as case numbers continue to rise

More variants of concern (VOC) have been identified in the Northwestern Health Unit service area, including the variant first detected in Brazil. Since January, the health unit has reported 56 positive VOC cases, 12 of which were reported in the last 10 days. Up until Thursday, the health unit had only previously reported the VOC first detected in the United Kingdom.

The medical officer of health for the Northwestern Health Unit says VOCs are an issue in the region

11 new COVID-19 cases were reported by the Northwestern Health Unit Friday. (Robert Short/CBC)

More variants of concern (VOC) have been identified in the Northwestern Health Unit (NWHU) service area, including the variant first detected in Brazil.

Since January, the health unit has reported 56 positive VOC cases, 12 of which were reported in the last ten days. Up until Thursday, the health unit had only previously reported the VOC first detected in the United Kingdom.

"I think variants of concern are an issue and is leading to the case numbers increasing … the number of cases associated with an outbreak can range anywhere from five cases to 15 cases, which is much larger now than it used to be earlier on in the pandemic. So that is another potential driver for why are we seeing more cases now," said Dr. Kit Young Hoon, NWHU medical officer of health, in an interview with CBC Radio.

The case flagged as a VOC first detected in Brazil was found in a case from the Dryden, Ont., area which is considered to be resolved.

"What we know about this case is that it does not appear to have spread to other individuals in our catchment area and that this case potentially could have acquired that variant outside of our catchment area because of travel associated with that particular case," said Young Hoon in a media briefing Friday.

Dr. Kit Young Hoon is the medical officer of health with the Northwestern Health Unit. (Northwestern Health Unit)

NWHU is currently aware of active VOC cases first detected in the UK in Kenora, Fort Frances and Atikokan; however, the health unit said VOC cases may also be in other communities as lab identification of variants is not possible for some samples.

Case numbers continue to be a concern

The health unit reported a total of 11 new COVID-19 cases Friday, 10 of which were located in the Sioux Lookout health hub and one was located in the Fort Frances Health Hub.

As of Friday, the NWHU catchment area has a total of 67 active cases. The Sioux Lookout health hub has the highest local case count in the region with a total of 28 active cases.

"It is concerning that we continue to see a high number of new cases each week, despite being in a stay-at-home order. Following going public health measures and not looking for ways to bend or ignore the law is critical to be able to reopen. Keeping numbers down means less chance the virus mutates and gives the vaccines a chance to work," said Young Hoon.

The strong warning from Young Hoon comes as Mother's Day weekend approaches, she adds that now is the time for residents to start taking restrictions seriously. 

"The consequences of not doing so have very real impact, impacts that go beyond being charged. The reality of people choosing to violate the law and ignore public health measures will prolong the shutdown and continue to increase cases and illnesses in our area. These decisions can jeopardize people's lives and livelihoods, and they put our local health care system at risk," she continued.

As of Friday, the province is still planning to break out of its stay-at-home order on May 20; however, as cases continue to rise in the NWHU catchment area Young Hoon is unsure what future restrictions are in store for the region.

"It's very challenging to know at this time. Right now, our case numbers are increasing and they have been increasing over the month of April, which is pretty much when the lockdown has been in place," she said.

"So at this point, it's necessary for the entire population to collectively push for following public health measures and public health restrictions, so that we can bring our case numbers down and be able to come out of the stay-at-home order."

The number of cases of COVID-19 in the Northwestern Health unit area is continuing to climb. Hear why the unit's medical officer is encouraging everyone to follow all public health precautions, and sign up for a vaccine as soon as they're eligible. 8:05

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