COVID-19 took Sudbury on a roller coaster of highs and lows in past year

·7 min read

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Sudbury in March 2020, there seemed to be a city-wide attitude of "It won't affect us. We're in Northern Ontario. This is a big city thing."

After all, the first case arrived in early March and by the first week of May only 58 cases had been confirmed. There had been two deaths locally and both were senior citizens.

Things don't always pan out so easily.

Public Health Sudbury and District (PHSD) was on track for testing all the residents and staff in 13 long-term care homes in the local jurisdiction. Next on the PHSD list was testing in all 12 retirement homes in the same area.

By the second week of May, there had been 61 confirmed cases of COVID-19. But 56 of those cases had been resolved, meaning only five active cases.

The Ontario government began easing the restrictions. Retail stores with a street entrance were allowed to offer curbside pickup. Suddenly a phrase that might have once been the punchline of a bad joke — curbside pickup — became part of our everyday pandemic lingo. Other phrases that became common were social distancing, flattening the curve and social bubble.

Still, people were taking it seriously. In roughly one month after the pandemic was declared, Greater Sudbury Police Service officers had been dispatched to more than 200 COVID-19 related complaint calls. In all of those instances, individuals were re-educated after a chat with police officers. No tickets or fines were issued.

City bylaw officers also responded to nearly 400 complaints involving social gatherings and complaints about non-essential businesses being open. The bylaw office said only one fine was issued.

Despite the low case numbers back then, outbreaks were occurring in nursing and retirement homes. Pioneer Manor, Extendicare York, St. Gabriel Villa, Wikwemikong Nursing Home and Finlandia Village had all reported outbreaks, usually involving one resident or one staff member. It wasn't too serious, but it was enough to have Sudbury Public Health continue to issue warnings about hand-washing, physical distancing and wearing a mask.

Aaron Archibald, the director of Pioneer Manor, said pandemic plans were put in place to isolate any single resident, or any group of residents that had COVID-19 symptoms, into a separate part of the home. Archibald spoke with Sudbury.com managing editor Mark Gentili in a video presentation.

Still it had been difficult for many living in elder care. Most residents were not allowed to come and go as they liked and in many cases were allowed only one visitor, usually a person designated as an essential caregiver.

By the second week of June, the province was gradually easing the pressure on the business community. It was called Stage 2.

"The success of our past sacrifices now allows us to safely transition to this next stage,” said Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, Medical Officer of Health.

“As we move forward, it’s critically important that we recognize that the success of reopening is our individual and shared responsibility,” Sutcliffe added.

She said along with the right to reopen a business comes the responsibility to do it safely.

"Employers are expected to lead by example, emphasizing public health advice, and workplace health and safety guidance. The decisions business leaders take as they reopen will determine the course of the pandemic in our area and the public health actions necessary to control spread," said Sutcliffe.

Along with social change, there was technological change. Both Vale and KGHM in Sudbury reported receiving and testing out new screening devices that would measure a person's external body temperature as they come into a workplace to determine whether they might have a fever and be possibly infected with the coronavirus. The Provix screening device had also been picked up by several other mining companies across Northern Ontario.

As part of easing the restrictions, Health Sciences North revealed that it was resuming most clinical services in a gradual manner and this would include elective surgeries and non-urgent medical procedures. Since March 15, more than 4,000 surgeries and procedures had been postponed.

Around the same time, HSN issued a public statement reminding city residents that if they had any plans of going to the hospital as an essential visitor, or as a patient, they should be wearing a face mask "to reduce the spread of germs and protect vulnerable patients."

In the first week of July, the health unit issued a new advisory that face coverings would be required for employees in all commercial workplaces in the Sudbury and Manitoulin districts. This would apply also to public transit.

In August, a change was made to the Reopening Ontario Act 2020 directing that all pub and restaurant patrons must provide their server or bartender with their name and contact information. This was deemed useful for contact tracing.

In September, the arrival of the new school year came and went without a lot of fanfare. People were reminded to keep wearing masks, but there were a lot of people who were travelling around the north, visiting family members or going off to camp.

Gradually, day by day, new cases were being reported, usually just one case at a time. In some cases, travel was blamed. In many cases new COVID-19 patients were saying they had not travelled and had not seen anyone outside their circle. Some news reports from outside of Sudbury suggested that new COVID-19 patients were simply lying and not admitting they had travelled anywhere or had gone to a restaurant.

Wednesday, Sept. 16 was the day PHSD reported the 100th case of COVID-19 in its jurisdiction. It was a travel related case for a person from the area of Manitoulin Island. No other information was revealed.

As the case count continued, things were not dramatic. Not until Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, when PHSD reported 20 new cases in one day. Many in the city found it alarming. It was the highest case spike so far in Sudbury.

Citizens were reminded to stay vigilant and stay smart and to keep following the basic precautions. There seemed to be a pattern forming. In the following two days Ontario's case count grew to record high levels, with 1,132 cases on the Saturday and 1,328 cases on the Sunday.

As Sudbury moved toward winter, the total case count continued to grow. New cases were being reported almost daily throughout November and December. At the provincial level, the case count was exceeding 2,000 daily. On Boxing Day, the province had imposed a new provincial shutdown.

By New Year's Eve in Sudbury, the total COVID-19 count locally had reached 275 cases. Only 17 of the cases were active that day, but gradually, the situation in the Sudbury jurisdiction has grown far more serious.

By 4 p.m. on Tuesday of this week, the total case count in Sudbury was 841 cases. That’s an increase of more than 200 per cent in just over two months.

The death count also rose dramatically in the new year. Up until mid-January, there had only been two deaths in the entire PHSD service area. Twelve new deaths have occurred since then. Seven of these deaths occurred during a COVID-19 outbreak in mid-January at a local retirement home, Amberwood Suites on Regent Street. Deaths also occurred in other seniors’ homes and at the hospital, but for privacy reasons, details were not made public. Another death was reported just this Wednesday, bringing the total to 15.

Also, looking back on the demographics of the total COVID-19 case count, information provided by the PHSD showed that the majority of cases are persons in the 20 to 39 age category with 293 total cases, according to the latest count provided by PHSD.

The next highest number was 211 cases for the 19 and under age group. The next highest number was 174 cases for the 40 to 59 age group. Seniors in the 60 to 79 age group had only 98 cases total and people aged 80 and over were the lowest category with 61 cases.

Also, it was announced Thursday morning that Sudbury is being moved from the Red-Control zone into the Grey-Lockdown zone because the COVID-19 case count has risen too high in recent days. The new lockdown in Sudbury began Friday morning at 12:01 a.m.

Len Gillis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com