Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) has announced it is rolling back the calendar and imposing provincial restrictions to combat the rising number of COVID-19 cases in its jurisdiction.
The unexpected move was announced by Medical Officer of Health Dr. Penny Sutcliffe Monday afternoon, in response to what she described as the difficult news of the increasing number of COVID-19 infections in recent days.
This includes hitting the milestone of surpassing 3,000 accumulated cases on November 5. Also, the number of cases reported by PHSD on Monday was 122, which included the daily case counts for Saturday, Sunday and Monday. There was also an outbreak last week at Health Sciences North in Sudbury, the largest hospital in Northern Ontario.
"We have seen the highest case rates in the province, not just by a little bit in our area, but by far," Sutcliffe said in an online news conference.
She said the numbers have shown that Sudbury was hitting the highest case rate of all 34 health units in Ontario. It was also the highest that had been seen in the Sudbury jurisdiction since April of 2020.
Sutcliffe said the COVID restriction calender for Sudbury is temporarily being rolled back to before October 9, 2021 when the restrictions for Reopening Ontario were in what was called Step-3; which meant there were limits on capacities at bars, pubs, cinemas, restaurants and even sporting venues.
Sutcliffe said the restrictions will come into effect as of 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday November 10, 2021. She added that the health unit will be serious about enforcement. She said formal notice is being given to the business community to advise what will be expected.
Sutcliffe said the letter of instruction being sent to the business community is about 18 pages long.
"However, the simple message to all businesses and operators is that if you roll back the clock to October 8, and what you did then is what you need to do now. So hopefully that message is very clear in terms of being able to comply with that," said Sutcliffe.
In the news release issued Monday, Sutcliffe outlined the latest course of action.
1) Reinforce the critical importance of public health measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
2) Temporarily reinstate recent provincial changes lifting capacity limits and physical distancing requirements in the Step 3 Rules.
3) Strengthen masking requirements at organized public events.
4) Strengthen provincial proof of identification & vaccination requirements for organized sports, requiring anyone 12 years of age and older who actively participates in organized sports (not just coaches, officials etc.) to provide proof of vaccination unless a medical exemption applies.
Sutcliffe said the new measures were meant as a "circuit breaker" action to hopefully slow down the spread of COVID-19 in Sudbury. She said that enforcement would be based on people voluntarily following the rules.
"Of course, we certainly expect voluntary compliance," she said adding that the vast majority of business owners and service providers do that.
"And they know it's in their best interest as a business and as a community to comply with these."
She added that much consideration went into discussions about whether this was the right action to take because there was indeed concern about compliance and community acceptance.
"I will tell you that enforcement is absolutely a tool that we would use, both with public health inspectors and Ministry of Labour, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission, police, bylaw, all of that," said Sutcliffe.
She added that the letters being sent to the business community includes a reminder that there are fines for non-compliance that are not insignificant.
"So we're hoping also that acts as a deterrent," said Sutcliffe.
Sudbury.Com asked Sutcliffe how long this latest set of restrictions will be in place. She said her hope was that things could change in two weeks or so, but then added she really didn't want to pin down a date.
"So I am very loath to put a date on this because we have been fooled many times over the course of this pandemic with the unexpected turns and twists. We will follow the data. So we will look very carefully about what's happening with our case rates. If this is in fact an effective circuit breaker, we should be seeing a reduction in cases over the next two weeks," said Sutcliffe.
She added that PHSD will be closely watching what is happening in the rest of Ontario and what other health units are dealing with. She said PHSD will watch the data closely, hoping that things will improve but being aware that if things get worse, even stricter measures can be put in place.
"So we're taking this very, very seriously, but absolutely hoping that we will be turning the corner," said Sutcliffe.
Sutcliffe also said the health unit has contacted the local school boards to discuss the deployment of rapid-antigen testing.
"So just today, we have met with the directors of education and the COVID leads for the school boards that have schools in the City of Greater Sudbury. The rapid antigen testing certainly is a tool that can be used in any health unit related to schools, if we are seeing cases in schools or outbreaks in schools, this is a measure that can be used in terms of the test-to-stay strategy that the province has announced," said Sutcliffe.
She added that such tests can be especially useful at this time.
"In areas such as ours, where we're seeing elevated rates and transmission of the COVID virus, it might also be appropriate to not only target schools where we're seeing cases, if that is appropriate, but also in general to make sure that there isn't transmission going on that we may not otherwise be aware of," said Sutcliffe.
Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. He covers health care in Northern Ontario.
Len Gillis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com