By Willow Fiddler
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A surge of COVID-19 infections in Northern Ontario’s Thunder Bay district fuelled by outbreaks at local correctional facilities has resulted in more confirmed cases so far this year than last year, prompting the regional hospital to expand its COVID unit in preparation for a worsening crisis.
The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre confirmed 18 COVID-19 patients are in hospital, including seven people in the ICU, forcing it to add another eight beds to its COVID-19 unit.
There are 273 active cases in the district, including 178 reported since Friday.
Meanwhile, the Thunder Bay District Health Unit says its staff is maxed out with an influx of inquiries from parents after 11 school outbreaks in the past two weeks, including six schools since Friday.
The health unit has reported more than 1,400 confirmed cases since the pandemic started, with over half of those since Jan. 1. The district includes Thunder Bay and dozens of surrounding rural and remote communities.
Thunder Bay was one of the 27 regions moved back into the “red zone” as it transitions out of the provincewide shutdown, reopening retail stores, gyms and casinos with limits for indoor and outdoor gatherings.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliot said on Tuesday that cabinet will review data and recommendations from the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health on Thursday evening to determine whether to apply the “emergency brake” in the region that could potentially move Thunder Bay back under tighter restrictions.
Thunder Bay NDP MPP Judith Monteith-Farrell accused Premier Doug Ford of not providing Thunder Bay with the resources it needed for a safe reopening and called on him to ramp up testing, tracing and isolation spaces for vulnerable people before the city faces another lockdown.
Press secretary Cole Davidson said federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has been following the outbreaks at two correctional facilities in Thunder Bay declared in early January that many have also linked to the recent spike in infections.
On Jan. 6 the health unit announced two confirmed cases in individuals associated with the district jail and correctional centre. By Jan. 13, there were 14 reported cases at the district jail, where individuals are often remanded in custody waiting for court appearances.
On Feb. 10 the health unit declared an outbreak among the city’s homeless population, citing a small but significant increase from its surveillance and testing. The local shelter house says it has reported only two cases, one in a staff member and one in a client. However, there are close to 500 homeless people in Thunder Bay, according to a 2018 count.
The city’s isolation shelter says 110 individuals are self-isolating because they have tested positive for COVID-19, are experiencing symptoms or are awaiting test results from being identified as a close contact.
The isolation shelter was set up in April for individuals who are “experiencing homelessness or are precariously housed” and more than 1,000 people have used it, according to Kim Callaghan from St. Joseph’s Care Group, one of the agencies involved.
Fort William First Nation, next door to Thunder Bay, has reported three cases since the end of January, linking the infections to a community member who was released from the district jail without the knowledge of the leadership. Chief executive officer Michael Pelletier said when the man was discovered days later staying with a friend and the friend’s spouse, he was isolated and tested. The man’s friend and spouse have since tested positive for the coronavirus.
Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services has assisted more than 250 inmates released from correctional facilities in the province, as part of an agreement with Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political group that represents 49 First Nations, and Ontario that was signed last spring. Irene Linklater, executive director for Nishnawbe Aski Legal Services, said a protocol was necessary to work with First Nations for the release of members from custody because of pandemic restrictions that don’t allow entry into remote communities.
Ms. Linklater says communication with the province needs to improve however, to ensure community pandemic protocols are being followed upon an inmate’s release.
The outbreak at the correctional centre has since been declared over but new cases continue to be reported at the district jail.
Chief Chris Moonias from Neskantaga, a remote fly-in community about 460 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, says 11 community members living in the city are among those with confirmed cases, including one on a ventilator in ICU. He says close to half of the community’s 479 members live off-reserve, many leaving because of a “severe lack of housing in the community.”