December 2, 2023

We are still officially in a pandemic, but there are more signs that COVID-19 is fading in northeastern Ontario.

The latest is the closing of testing clinics and the loosening of masking rules at the region’s major hospitals.

“COVID’s over,” said Paul Heinrich, the president at the North Bay Regional Health Centre.

“Technically the virus is still with us, but it really is important for the entire health system to move on. Have to get back to providing as much possible service as they can to the people who need it.”

Heinrich says he has “shocked” people by saying that it’s time to move on from COVID, but says that he’s not being “flippant” just concerned that the health system is stuck in the past and not serving patients as well they could be.

He says the North Bay hospital was one of the first to close its COVID testing clinic in March and re-deploy those staff to other departments and to bring back some “humanity” with the dropping of some masking restrictions.

The Sault Area Hospital also closed its assessment centre in March and on Friday, the Timmins and District Hospital will do the same.

A truck drives away from a large building with an 'H' sign on the top.
The COVID testing clinic at the Timmins hospital was still relatively busy in recent months, including outbreaks at local nursing homes, but way down from the 300 swabs per day they were doing at the height of the pandemic. (Erik White/CBC)

Tara Miller, a registered nurse who has worked in the Timmins assessment centre for the past three years, says in the last few months they were still testing “vulnerable” people who are eligible for anti-viral treatment, as well as dealing with small outbreaks at nursing homes. 

“It’s up and down. Definitely the numbers are less,” she said. 

“I won’t be sad to close the door here and not have to come back into this building.”

Miller remembers in the early days the only people being tested had attended the Prospectors and Developers mining conference in Toronto in March 2020, but it soon “blossomed” to over 330 swabs per day.

One of her strongest memories is of entire families lined up “for hours” in the cold waiting for a COVID test.

A woman in a white protective suit holds a swab out towards a car
The president of the North Bay hospital says the health care system needs to drop most COVID-19 protocols and put staff back into other areas where they are needed by patients. (Erik White/CBC)

“We’ve been expecting this for quite a while and hoping it wouldn’t be open so long. Initially what was only a few months to offer the testing, you know, evolved into over three years now,” she said.

The COVID testing will still be available through the emergency department in the Timmins hospital.

The assessment centre at the Sudbury hospital is still running, but Health Sciences North has joined other hospitals in the region but it has joined other hospitals in loosening masking rules, now only requiring that faces be covered in certain patient areas.


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