Looking back on the first year of the pandemic in Sudbury, a year like no other

·6 min read

It was one year ago this week that the COVID-19 pandemic was officially recognized in Sudbury when Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) revealed that an employee of the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines had become the first known case of the coronavirus in the city.

The employee, a man in his fifties, had gone to the emergency room at Health Sciences North (HSN) on March 7. He had a cough and shortness of breath. The man had been back home in Sudbury after attending the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada annual convention in Toronto.

No one would know for a couple of days what the situation was.

The hospital took all necessary precautions and followed standard operating procedures, including infection control, testing, and assessment, said PHSD.

It was at the same time on March 9, 2020 that PHSD hosted a hands-on workshop to consider how different agencies and groups in the city would cope if a virus epidemic hit Sudbury. More than 60 agencies across the city took part that Monday.

The event "was designed to move participants beyond their comfort zones to consider difficult, yet realistic scenarios related to COVID-19 spread," said the PHSD news release.

“Today we rolled up our sleeves and acted on the World Health Organization’s end of February warning — that COVID-19 is a reality check for every government on the planet and that we have a duty to wake up and be ready,” said Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, the medical officer of health at PHSD.

The wake-up call came quickly. Sudbury's first COVID case was revealed on March 10.

“I am confirming that based on our investigations so far, the individual was not infectious while attending the PDAC 2020 conference March 2 and 3 in Toronto,” said Dr. Sutcliffe.

“Our working hypothesis at this time is that this individual was exposed to COVID-19 while at the conference and therefore we are advising those who attended the conference to monitor for symptoms for 14 days since leaving this event,” said Sutcliffe.

It was the same day this writer, who had also attended the mining convention in Toronto, was sent home to self-isolate.

March 11 was also the day that formally characterized the COVID-19 outbreak as a worldwide pandemic with an announcement from the World Health Organization.

By the end of that week — a Friday the 13th, no less — the health unit had its fingers crossed. There was still only one confirmed case in Sudbury, but testing had begin on dozens of individuals

"The local situation remains unchanged with no evidence of community transmission. As of noon, Friday, March 13, there have been 67 tests performed for COVID-19 within our service area," said a PHSD release.

That same day, HSN issued a news release advising that a COVID-19 testing and assessment centre had been set up on Walford Road. The idea was to minimize having "walk-in" patients suspected of carrying the virus just showing up at the hospital emergency room. Walk-ins were also turned away at the Walford test centre. It was by appointment only.

Self-screening was advised for anyone having a fever (38 Celsius or higher), having a cough or having travelled outside of Canada in the past 14 days.

As expected, a second case of the coronavirus was revealed that weekend, on the Sunday, March 15.

“While this is unfortunate, it is not unexpected. This person was a close contact of the first confirmed COVID-19 case in our area,” said Sutcliffe. “The individual has followed the directions of Public Health and remains in self-isolation at home where she has been isolated since being tested at the Health Sciences North emergency department on Wednesday, March 11, 2020."

The next day was March 16, the day before the popular St. Patrick's Day, an event that would usually draw crowds to local pubs.

The health unit put out a news release that day reminding everyone of the importance of “social distancing,” a phrase that would quickly become common, no matter where you are. Perhaps sensing that social distancing was not an immediate priority for a lot of St. Paddy's revellers, the Ontario Government took things a step further.

At 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, March 17, Ontario declared a provincewide state of emergency.

Immediately this meant that all bars and restaurants were shut down, save for any take-out orders. Put away your Guinness, your Bushmills and your Jameson.

But that wasn't all. Indoor gym and recreation programs were shut down. It was the same with daycare centres, public libraries, cinemas and live theatre shows, tattoo parlours, hair salons and barber shops.

Life certainly changed for many Sudburians. A lot of people had the opportunity to work from home, but many did not. They were forced out of their workplaces and told to wait at home.

And while people waited for government leaders to decide who could continue as essential workers and who could not, things were gradually changing.

On March 21 and again on March 23, the third and fourth cases of COVID-19 were reported by the health unit. Both individuals were tracked as having been on international and domestic airline flights before arriving in Sudbury.

Two days later and PHSD was reporting two more COVID-19 cases, the fifth and sixth. At that time, PHSD also said it would stop producing a special news release every time a COVID-19 case occurred. Instead, there would be a dedicated webpage with a running tally on the COVID-19 case count.

By the end of March, four new cases had been reported and then on April 2, PHSD reported the first local death. A man in his seventies who had come home from international travel had died. It would be a whole month later, on May 1, before PHSD would report a second death. It was a woman in her eighties who had contracted the disease during an outbreak at St. Joseph's Villa.

Sudbury was fitting right in with the provincial statistics which by that time showed that roughly half of the COVID-19 deaths in the entire province took place in long-term care homes.

It was May 1, 2020. There were only 58 confirmed cases in the entire Sudbury health unit jurisdiction, and there had not been a new case in the past three days.

Watch for Part 2 of this story as Sudbury.Com looks back on some of the key incidents in the past year that defined the pandemic in Greater Sudbury.

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com, covering health care in Northern Ontario. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the federal government.

Len Gillis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com