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The city of Timmins, Ont. and three remote communities in Northern Ontario have each declared a state of emergency in response to a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in the region.

The rapid spread of the virus in recent days has transformed the sprawling region into the province’s leading hot spot for the virus, with the highest per capita cases – illustrating the threat of new variants as residents in vulnerable communities remain only partly vaccinated.

The first case of the highly contagious Delta variant, first associated with India, was confirmed on Friday in Timmins, a city 700 kilometres north of Toronto. The individual had not travelled outside the region and is being treated in hospital.

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“I am very concerned that there’s other cases present, and we need to act as though there are,” Lianne Catton, Medical Officer of Health for the Porcupine Health Unit, told reporters on Monday.

Three other Northern Ontario communities, including Fort Albany First Nation, Attawapiskat First Nation and the Town of Moosonee have declared a state of emergency.

In an effort to prevent the virus from spreading further, the region will not join the rest of the province in lifting some restrictions on Friday, when people will be allowed to dine on restaurant patios, shop in non-essential retail stores with capacity limits and attend larger outdoor gatherings.

“There is no way that we can reopen this week,” Dr. Catton said.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer, David Williams, said he supports Dr. Catton’s decision not to participate in the first step of the province’s reopening plan.

The Porcupine Health Unit reported 23 new infections on Monday, with First Nations communities in the James Bay and Hudson Bay regions hardest-hit. Case counts in much of the rest of the country, by comparison, appear to be trending downward, with Ontario reporting just 525 new cases on Monday – the lowest number since last October.

Many people who have tested positive in the Northern Ontario region have mild symptoms of the coronavirus, likely owing to the fact that they’ve had their first dose of the vaccine, Dr. Catton said. The vaccination rate in the region is 68 per cent.

With cases of the Delta variant rising in Ontario, medical experts are calling on the government to speed up second-dose vaccinations in hot spots.

“We have a limited opportunity to get this right and get ahead of the Delta variant,” said Nathan Stall, a geriatrician and assistant scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, said the province sent the Porcupine Health Unit an additional 2,340 doses of vaccine in May, and plans to send an additional 2,000 doses above its per capita allocation this month to help combat the virus.

COVID-19 is spreading in First Nations communities because many people live in crowded conditions and also travel for work and medical care, Dr. Catton said. While people in these communities were given priority for the vaccine, it is just starting to be rolled out to children and youth aged 12 to 17, she said.

In Fort Albany First Nation, 94 per cent of residents have received their first dose of the vaccine. Fort Albany Chief Robert Nakogee said in an interview that he has imposed a curfew for the community of roughly 900, and has set up a meal delivery service to help keep people indoors. As of Sunday evening, 56 people from the community had tested positive for the virus, including one man who was in hospital.

Members of the Canadian Rangers, part of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves who work in remote regions across the country, had been assisting elders in Fort Albany with ordering food, Chief Nakogee said. But they were grounded after they came in contact with a person who tested positive.

People began getting sick in Fort Albany on May 22. Until then, there had been only two cases of COVID-19 in the community since the onset of the pandemic last year.

In Long Lake 58 First Nation, located 300 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, roughly 80 of the 450 residents have now tested positive for COVID-19.

“We had outbreaks before, but nothing like this,” Chief Judy Desmoulin said in an interview. One issue, she said, is that vaccine uptake was relatively low – only about half the adults eligible for the shot chose to get it, and the virus had already begun to spread before the vaccine program could be expanded to children aged 12 and up.

To control the spread, Chief Desmoulin said, a rapid-testing program has been put in place. A private security company has also been hired to monitor the entrance to the community and to ensure residents are following self-isolation guidelines.

“Once we get the outbreaks under control, we are going to offer vaccine again,” said Chief Desmoulin, adding she hopes the experience will encourage more people in the community to get vaccinated.

With reports from Erin Anderssen and Jeff Gray

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