Community spread of the coronavirus appears to be occurring in the Thunder Bay area, with new cases and deaths expected by the end of April.
Dr. Janet DeMille, district medical officer of health, laid out the situation in a video briefing Saturday.
There are currently 12 cases of COVID-19 caused by the virus in the Thunder Bay District. Ten are active and two have been resolved. Most are travel-related or involve those who have had contact with these individuals.
Three of the 12 are still under active investigation, said DeMille. Those three are in the city of Thunder Bay and none of them travelled in the two weeks prior to developing symptoms.
“It appears that these individuals acquired the virus in Thunder Bay,” said DeMille. Two appear to have been infected by someone close to them who did travel. The source of the third case is still being investigated by the district health unit.
“None of this is surprising,” said DeMille.“Travel remains our biggest risk factor.”
These developments mean that there are people in the Thunder Bay area who have not been identified as having the virus and who are passing it to others without knowing it, said DeMille.
“These cases could indicate that there is community spread in this area,”said said, although for now “it is likely at low levels.”
DeMille repeated the standing federal Quarantine Act order for those who have travelled into the district from anywhere else to self-isolated for 14 days.
She strongly advised against travel within the district, especially with the Easter long weekend pending.
“Please don’t travel; this is not the time to do it,” she stressed. Instead, get together by electronic means or defer Easter celebrations until the pandemic has passed.
Addressing the stark modelling projections issued by the province on Friday -- 80,000 cases and 1,600 deaths by April 30 under current orders and advisories -- DeMille said further measures announced by the province will lower those numbers.
Still, she said, by April 30 “we are going to see a significant increase in cases here, including evidence of further community spread.
“We will also see deaths associated with COVID-19 in this area."
“These next few weeks are going to be uncomfortable as we watch this happen,” she acknowledged, calling it “crunch time.” But the significant public health measures around physical distancing, self-isolation -- especially for those over 70 -- and closure of schools and non-essential business will continue to lessen the outbreak.
Northwestern Ontario will benefit more from those measures than communities in southern Ontario because they were implemented here “very early” in the course of local events, said DeMille.
Additional new measures around contact tracing will allow the health unit to better contain the virus, she said.
“These are challenging times,” DeMille acknowledged. “These are uncertain times. These are uncomfortable times. This is going to go on longer than any one of us wants it to. However, it will end.”
When that will happen is hard to predict, she said, but by May “we could start to see things get better.” Until then “we need to hold on. We need to do all the things that we can do to reduce the spread of this virus here so that we can see, as early as possible, that improvement happening, and us all being able to return to normal.”
Of 500 tests conducted by the health unit so far, aside from the 10 active cases, 430 have been negative and 60 are pending.
DeMille said the provincial testing backlog has been resolved and the turnaround time for tests is being reduced.
Meanwhile, at Thunder Bay Regional hospital, preparations are underway for the expected surge of COVID-19 patients.
An isolation ward with 36 beds is being prepared with plans for additional room if and when it is required.
In his daily briefing Saturday, incident manager Dr. Stewart Kennedy said hospital occupancy is now down to under 60 per cent. “It’s an eerie feeling walking down empty hallways,” said Kennedy, adding there is “a nervous tension” throughout the building in anticipation of cases beyond the eight currently being assessed.
Kennedy said he is concerned by the fact that emergency department use is significantly reduced. There were just 13 patients there Saturday morning. People with shortness of breath, chest pains and other serious symptoms should not be afraid to go to the ER where significant safety measures are in place, said Kennedy.
All elective surgery has been cancelled, though emergency surgeries are still being performed.
Plexiglass is being installed to protect staff and patients in the emergency, admitting and X-ray departments.
Additional coronavirus testing is planned when test kits on order arrive.
Surveillance testing is planned for front-line workers such as police, fire, EMS, long-term and acute care staff as well as pre-op patients as part of efforts to more accurately gauge the status and spread of the virus.
An ongoing shortage of personal protective equipment has caused the hospital to prepare to ask for supplies in the community. Kennedy said an “urgent appeal” for N95 and other masks, medical gowns and gloves is planned for construction and hydro operations, dentists, veterinarians, cosmetic suppliers and others.
Plans are under way to make drop-off of these items at the hospital easy with information to be made available on Monday.