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Authorities stress need for continued caution

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It’s been an encouraging week for area residents concerned with the spread of COVID-19, as the Nipssing and Parry Sound district appears to have flattened the curve for the moment.

While the number of cases in the district had been steadily rising in late March to mid April, it peaked at 16 on April 20 and then went no further. The best news is that among the 16 people infected, fifteen have already recovered, with just one person – a man in his 80s – remaining hospitalized. Another highlight is that none of the district cases are within a long-term care facility such as Au Château or the Pavillon (at WN General Hospital), where COVID-19 could potentially be the most deadly as we have seen in other areas of the province and country.

The ratio of male to female patients is 50/50; ten of the 16 are over 60, three in their fifties, one in their thirties, one in their twenties and one under age 20. Most of the cases, 56%, were related to travel, with a further 19% attributed to close contact with an infected person. However, some cases of community spread began to sprout up in early April, leading to increased concern and calls for heightened social distancing measures. Of the 16 confirmed cases, 25% were attributed to community spread, meaning the patients caught the virus out and about in the area.

The North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit faced public outcry from people wanting to know exactly where, in the vast district, those cases were located. People argued that knowing cases were present in a particular area would incite residents in those areas to be more careful. However, the Health Unit insisted on giving numbers only by district, distinguishing only 12 cases in the Nipissing (from West Nipissing to Mattawa) area and 4 in the Parry Sound area. The decision was meant to protect the privacy of patients and their medical information, it was explained.

In response to the public pressure, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jim Chirico put out a video saying vigilance was required all over the district, no matter where the particular cases may be. “We all need to assume COVID-19 is in every community and act now,” he advised. “Most individuals with COVID-19 have no symptoms or mild symptoms and don’t know that they have it, and unknowingly can infect others. If people wait for a positive test result in their community to follow public health recommendations, it is too late.” He further stated that divulging the location of positive cases would not make the community safer, but only satisfy curiosity and compromise patient privacy.

Notably, the freeze in the number of cases coincided with the ramping up of COVID-19 testing in the district, which some thought would lead to a sudden rise in positive cases as more results came in. In West Nipissing, a COVID-19 Assessment Centre was opened on March 30 at the Sturgeon Falls Complex, but with narrow testing criteria, few tests were done in the first days of April. By mid-April, the criteria was relaxed and more people were being tested, with local visits going from 1 to 3 per day to up to 15. The exact figures are added to the district totals, and as of April 29, the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit reported 1731 tests had been conducted, and 279 results were still pending.

“Due to a global supply shortage and initial laboratory testing capacity issues, the province was unable to test as frequently as we would have liked,” said Dr. Chirico on April 22, adding that between April 13 and 19, testing more than doubled over the previous week. “Now that supplies are available, the increased testing will help determine how prevalent COVID-19 is in our region.”

Despite more relaxed testing criteria, WN General Hospital CEO Cynthia Desormiers stresses that the local assessment centre is not taking walk-ins; people must have an appointment to attend. Individuals who suspect they may have COVID-19 are asked to call their healthcare provider, Telehealth or the Health Unit before they are referred to the centre.

The health authorities also caution against relaxing protective measures too quickly in reaction to the flattening curve, stressing that the low rate of propagation is the result of good social distancing in the area, and this needs to continue while the threat remains high. They point to numbers for all of Ontario, which are still alarming, at 15,728 cases and 996 deaths as of April 29.

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Nipissing district flattens the curve