With cases on the rise across northern Ontario, public health officials in North Bay say they agree with an extended lockdown. (Alana Pickrell/CTV News Northern Ontario)

With cases still rising in the north and the Ford Government announcing a two week extension to the current lockdown, officials in North Bay say they are on board and recommending the longer closure.

“I fully agree and recommended it,” said Dr. Jim Chirico, the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit’s Medical Officer of Health.

“Ontario is experiencing an unprecedented increase in number of cases, deaths, hospitalizations, critical care admissions and patients on ventilation due to COVID-19 infections.”

The surge in cases over the last two weeks points an increased rate of infection across the district.

“Over the last 14 days we have seen 41 individuals test positive for COVID-19 in our district. We currently have 23 active cases and we’re just starting to see the negative impact of the holiday season,” he adds.

For now the shutdown in the north has been extended until Jan. 23 to line up with southern Ontario.

“I think it’s really important that we follow the Medical Officer of Health’s advice and our medical professionals,” said North Bay Mayor Al McDonald.

“So if that’s the advice they’re giving us, we’re in full support.”

This means that businesses will, for the most part, remain open only for curbside pickup and residents are asked not to leave home unless absolutely necessary.

However, where the north now differs from southern Ontario, children are expected to return to the classrooms for in-person learning on Monday.

Dr. Chirico says the benefits outweigh the risks.

“I believe school is essential for our children’s mental, physical and social well being. Many students in our area face barriers through online learning including access to reliable internet,” he said.

“For some students, school is a safe place from their home or the place where they receive meals that they would not have at home.”

He says that, to date, there is no evidence of community spread through elementary or secondary schools, and therefore, it makes sense to send students back to learning.

“With the current infection prevent and control measures in place, returning to school presents as a low risk,” Dr. Chirico says.

“This means the benefits of in-person learning outweigh the risk of COVID-19 at this time. However, we need to be monitoring the situation closely and if circumstances change we will adapt and take appropriate action.”

 “I’ve heard both sides of the coin. I’ve seen doctors actually tweeting that kids should be back. So really, no opinion other than the schools, the educators have been doing a great job of keeping our young people and the staff safe,” McDonald adds.

One of the biggest concerns comes from travel spread, according to McDonald.

“We have people from the hot spots traveling north into our communities. I’m hearing from, you know, our local businesses that they’re seeing them. But we also have citizens travelling south as well,” he said.

“It’s not just southerners coming here, we have northerners that are travelling too. So that’s why I’m really concerned about them being exposed in the hot areas, where the rates are really high, and then bringing it home.”

Dr. Chirico says if people don’t act now and help stop the spread, its “likely that the shutdown will be extended even further and possibly with more restrictions.”

“I am worried that people are not following the rules and that people are looking for loop holes. If we continue to see an increase in the numbers of individuals testing positive in our region, I will have to look at all available options to slow the spread of COVID-19 locally.”