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'You feel like you're one swab away from a disaster'— battling COVID variants in North Bay

How much the pandemic will change because of the COVID variants could be determined in a small northern Ontario city. North Bay only has a few dozen active COVID cases, but most of them are one of the new fast-spreading versions of the virus.

The Nipissing and Parry Sound districts are the only parts of Ontario to remain under a stay-at-home order because of the spread of COVID variants. (Evan Mitsui / CBC)

Joanne Valiquette used to love going out for walks and having visitors to her North Bay apartment.

But now the 26 – year-old is afraid to even go into the halllway of the Lancelot Apartments, which has become the center of a COVID variant outbreak in the city.

“It really hits close to home when it’s in this building. It’s scary,” says Valiquette.

“So I’m afraid to go out to do my laundry or to go through the lobby downstairs.”

So far, over 19 tenants of the building have tested positive for COVID, about two dozen of them a confirmed case of one of the new fast-spreading variants of the coronavirus.

Two of Valiquette’s neighbors have died.

“I have a feeling it’s never going to end. We’re never going to have freedom again,” she says.

“It’s going to be like this maybe for the rest of my life.”

Over tenants at the Lancelot Apartments in North Bay have tested positive for COVID – 16, about them for one of the new variants. Two people who lived in the building have died. (skylineliving.ca)

The Nipissing and Parry Sound districts are now approaching two months in lockdown and the health unit has extended the stay-at-home order until at least March 8.

Unlike Toronto and Peel, which remain shutdown because of a high number of COVID cases, the North Bay and Parry Sound areas aren’t re-opening in order to stop the spread of the variants.

“It’s nerve-racking. You feel like you’re one swab away from a disaster,” says Jamie Lowery, the CEO of the city-run Casselholme nursing home.

“You’re always wondering … if somehow it will get into your home.”

One visitor to Casselholme did test positive for a COVID variant and then there were more positive COVID tests this week— two staff and relatives of residents.

Lowery says about half of them were re-tested and it came back negative. The health unit says that does not mean they do not have the virus and are consulting with experts about the test results.

But Lowery says public health is refusing to re-test the remaining half dozen, mostly spouses of one of the long-term care residents.

“I’m very upset,” he says.

“These are seniors. And every time you cough or sneeze or feel a headache, in your mind, you’re like ‘uh oh.’ They’re quite worried. “

Jamie Lowery, the CEO of the Casselholme nursing home, would like to see the health unit release more information about the spread of variants in North Bay. (Google Streetview)

Lowery would also like to see the health unit sharing more of what it knows about how the variants are spreading in North Bay.

Others took that frustration further, marching in the street outside the health unit office calling for an end to the lockdown and chanting “Chirico has got to go” referring to medical officer of health Dr. Jim Chirico.

“I was surprised and disappointed by that. I think he’s done an outstanding job,” says North Bay city councilor Chris Mayne.

“I think he’s actually saved lives in our community by being prudent and I think most people in the community appreciate that.”

A few dozen protesters on the streets of North Bay this week called for an end to the lockdown and laid blame on medical officer of health Dr. Jim Chirico. (Facebook)

Chirico has been the target of criticism for the past month, after the health unit went over and above provincial restrictions and ordered tobogganing hills, skating rinks and snowmobile trails in Nipissing and Parry Sound closed.

That ban was lifted this week, while the stay-at-home order continues.

Robb Noon, the mayor of the small town of Callander just south of North Bay, says public health is “showing leadership” by “making the tough decisions” but says they need to explain their thinking to frustrated citizens.

“If we do not have anything to go by to understand that, it just leads to speculation. You never see a light at the end of the tunnel. You have no clue,” says Noon.

“The public is so thirsty for more information.”

Parry Sound Mayor Jamie McGarvey says he has yet to get an explanation why his town and others over an hour’s drive from the variant outbreak in North Bay can’t re-open along with the rest of northern Ontario.

“There are a number of very upset people. They are certainly questioning the lockdown. There are businesses that are suffering,” he says.

“Why penalize absolutely everybody when you could isolate the severe situations?”

No one from the North Bay-Parry Sound Public Health Unit was made available for an interview for this story and Dr. Chirico has not been made available to speak with CBC for several weeks now.

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