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At least 35 positive cases have been identified in Kenora, Ont., since Thursday, Joe Barnes, executive director of Kenora Chiefs Advisory, said on Sunday.NIAID-RML

Public-health officials and community agencies in Northwestern Ontario are bracing for an overwhelming holiday season as COVID-19 cases continue to surge.

At least 35 positive cases have been identified in Kenora, Ont., since Thursday, Joe Barnes, executive director of Kenora Chiefs Advisory, said on Sunday. There are more than 80 confirmed cases in the entire Northwestern Health Unit district, which includes Kenora. It’s the biggest spike the district of about 20,000 people has seen since February when the health unit reported 95 cases.

Ontario reported 4,177 cases on Sunday, with the latest modelling indicating that could quickly go up to 10,000 daily cases.

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While health and social-service agencies in the northwestern district are working together to mitigate the spread, there’s worry over how long they’ll be able to maintain their services. Kenora’s vulnerable, unhoused population is at high risk.

“The staff are working long hours,” Mr. Barnes said. “Are we going to have enough isolation spaces, especially within our First Nation communities where there’s overcrowded houses and housing shortages already?”

Mr. Barnes said people are being isolated in a local hotel and at a youth camp but more space and human resources will be needed if cases continue to rise.

“Not having enough bodies to man the facilities and provide 24/7 care is a challenge,” he said.

The All Nations Health Partners is a collective of local leaders, such as the Kenora Chiefs Advisory and Lake of the Woods District Hospital, who have been working to provide inclusive health care services for the region and its large Indigenous population. They are providing services such as nursing, transportation, and setting up and staffing isolation units.

Confirmed cases in the Northwestern Health Unit district have quadrupled in the past week, with Kenora and Fort Frances most affected. Dr. Kit Young Hoon, Medical Officer of Health for the Northwestern Health Unit, said the impact will be felt across the region, with potential spread to Dryden, Red Lake and Sioux Lookout areas.

“This surge has come on quicker, faster than any other surge we’ve had in the past,” she said.

She said Delta remains the dominant variant in the region and that no cases of the Omicron variant have been identified.

Dr. Young Hoon also said she’s very concerned that there’s significant spread within the community of which public-health officials are not aware.

“There are groups of individuals who choose not to get tested, so we are not sure if there are cases that are being missed,” she said.

Mr. Barnes said it’s a challenge to identify and locate cases among the vulnerable population that is often transient, and that it’s a matter of building trusting relationships.

The health unit said on Friday afternoon, ahead of Premier Doug Ford’s announcement of tightened restrictions, that it was considering implementing its own local public-health measures. New restrictions were later announced by the province and went into effect Sunday morning, including limiting indoor gatherings to 10 and reducing capacity at stores and restaurants to 50 per cent.

Dr. Young Hoon said schools haven’t been a significant source of spread and that the health unit was preparing for more cases as people travel and gather in households and for holiday parties.

Both the Thunder Bay District Health Unit and Northwestern Health Unit have issued advisories against non-essential travel outside the region, particularly to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Manitoba where recent cases have come from.

Much of Northwestern Ontario was left out of the province’s rollout of rapid testing kit. The distribution only went as far as Thunder Bay, and places such as Kenora and Fort Frances did not get any kits.

Mr. Barnes worries that front-line health care workers will suffer, as many have now had to cancel holiday plans. He believes the government should compensate them accordingly.

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