By Sue Tiffin
The online version of this story has been updated with comments from the local health unit, which were submitted after press time, as well as the family’s COVID-19 test results.
The Christmas Day message posted to the Big Hawk Lake Marina Facebook page was not a traditional festive greeting – instead, it shared news that staff had likely been infected with COVID-19.
“We at the marina have had an exposure to a confirmed positive case of COVID-19,” it read. “We are also experiencing mild symptoms at this time. We will have ourselves tested for confirmation in [the] next few days. However, we must isolate and quarantine the marina until further notice.”
Sabrina Richards said in posting, she wanted their customers to know they wouldn’t be able to access the supplies they need from the Algonquin Highlands marina if they were arriving during the holidays.
“We knew people were coming up here for snowmobiling over the holidays and expected us to be open for gas and for whatever. We knew there was a number of them heading up just shortly after the holidays, Boxing Day … so, we wanted to basically let everybody know so they could bring whatever they needed from town, whether it be jerry cans of gas for their snowmobiles … because we wouldn’t be open.”
Richards said her household of four adults started experiencing mild symptoms of COVID-19 on Christmas Eve, a few days after two family members who had visited on Dec. 19 began experiencing symptoms.
“We had some family over,” she said. “A couple of days after they were here, they notified us that they had symptoms and got tested and they were positive. And it was probably a couple of days after they told us that they had symptoms that we started to have symptoms. They live in the city, and we don’t know how they got it, they don’t know how they got it, but you know, that’s how it is.”
Richards said the family members were visiting to have Christmas together, and kept their celebration under the 10 people legal gathering limit regulation for people living in green-prevent, yellow-protect and orange-restrict regions put in place by the province in their guidelines for gatherings and winter holiday celebrations.
The health unit told the Times: “Although the category permitted indoor social gatherings of up to 10 people, the provincial government and local health units began urging people in November to not participate in holiday festivities with anyone outside of their immediate household and to not travel to different areas of the province.” A poll released Jan. 4 from Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies for the Canadian Press found that 48 per cent of those surveyed had visited with friends and family from outside of their home.
“We were under the 10 so we thought we were OK, but, you know, it happened,” said Richards.
Upon hearing from family members that they were experiencing symptoms, with one receiving positive test results on Christmas Day, Richards said she posted to customers on the public Facebook page, after personally alerting anyone who might have come into contact with her or her family between the visit and the notification of symptoms. Though Richards said strict COVID-19 protocols had been in place at the marina, which operates by window service and curbside only, she was not taking any chances.
“There’s not many people up here at this time of year, but there were still contractors here working on people’s cottages, they come by every day for a coffee, or gas or whatever, we had to let them know right away because to me they were exposed, because they had been here,” she said.
On Christmas Eve, she began feeling symptoms – having to sit down after feeling dizzy. Each of her four family members – and the two family members that visited – have experienced the illness differently – some have had painful headaches, dizziness and massive fatigue, one lost their sense of taste and smell and had a sore throat, another had flu symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting.
“I had a little bit of the sniffles, but very minor sniffles, it was more headaches and body aches, and a lot of fatigue,” she said. “Like sleeping 14, 16 hours a day, it was very exhausting. So, overall I would say our symptoms were mild, none of us needed or felt the need that we had to go to a hospital, so I’m grateful for that.”
Richards said she called the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit on Dec. 28, following the holidays, and received a call back on Dec. 29 when they reopened.
“And at that time our symptoms were more strong than they are now,” she said. “So they suggested not coming in to be tested because they didn’t want us driving with our symptoms, which was probably a good idea.”
The health unit will not comment on individual cases, but in response to questions from the Times, e-mailed: “Every individual case is different. The health unit staff conducting case and contact management review each individual’s situation to determine next steps. These steps are based on whether the individual has symptoms, the onset date of those symptoms, the person’s infectious period, the exposure setting, the severity of those symptoms. In turn, the health unit will then review any high-risk or low-risk contacts associated with that situation. Depending on the information provided and whether a person is a low-risk contact, they could be directed to self-monitor for symptoms.”
When Richards called again, on Jan. 4, to better understand when her family might be able to stop isolating, she said the health unit “had kind of a little bit of a different opinion, in that, no, we probably should have come in and got tested because now they’re behind in a proper analysis of us.”
Richards said they planned to go for testing on Jan. 5, but said she felt the messaging had been conflicted.
“Until we actually do test positive, they don’t know how to tell us or direct us to proceed,” she said. “We’re all confident we will test positive because [the visitors] have tested positive and we have the symptoms. That’s a pretty sure thing. … Once they get that confirmed, they’ll contact us with what they want to do from that point forward.”
Richards said her family members – in two different cities – have been confused about best practices following symptoms as well. While Richards looked up the guidelines on the Ontario.ca website which recommends not returning to work until 72 hours after symptoms have gone away, one health unit told her family member to quarantine from the day of a positive test, not the date of exposure.
“So that’s a little bit different there, too,” she said. “So is it two weeks from the … what if you have no symptoms, is it still two weeks? So this is now where we’re confused. We are starting to feel better now, we do still have some symptoms so I wouldn’t say we’re good to go, but if we get tested tomorrow and say we get it back Friday so we’re positive Friday, then do we have to wait another two weeks? So I don’t know how this is going to turn out.”
“I think that’s just the reality, that it’s confusing for everybody,” said Richards. “We definitely don’t want to be the people who expose anybody else. As far as I’m concerned, we’ll just stay on the side of caution and keep closed until someone can give us a more definitive answer.”
The local health unit told the Times: “It depends on the presence of symptoms and severity of illness. Generally, as outlined in the Section 22 class order, it is fine for people to return to work/stop isolation 10 days from symptom onset, or 20 days for those who are very ill and/or hospitalized, or 14 days for any high-risk contact (HRC).”
On Jan. 5, 12 days after symptoms began for Richards, she said “I am feeling better but we do still have symptoms so we are continuing to isolate.”
Richards said it was important to her to be counted in the local confirmed case counts, which she checks regularly, though she is not currently out in the community. She also thought it was important to take the symptoms seriously and not treat them as a flu or cold to help avoid exposure to others.
“We’re shutting this down,” she said. “I don’t think people do take it seriously enough when they have symptoms. They think it’s a cold or they think it’s the flu … and that’s how it goes.”
Richards came here from Hamilton to take over the marina in August, with a role – managing the store and marina, working in mechanics, doing the bookkeeping – for each member in the family.
“We were looking for property to get out of the city and we noticed that the marina was here for sale again, and it was the right time for us to do it, so we did it,” she said.
Her grandfather had purchased a cottage on Little Hawk Lake in 1963.
“So we’ve been here for a long time,” she said.
Though there have been some challenges for the new business owners, which Richards said she thinks is normal in the first year for any new business, she notes they’ve pulled through, and learned a few lessons for next year. They’ve also ensured they’ve followed COVID-19 protocols at the business, keeping the store closed to the public except for window service and curbside pickup despite the reduction of sales that can cause, sanitizing any rental equipment on site including life jackets and helmets, and keeping the gas service full-serve, to limit the number of people handling the pump.
Business, she thinks, is growing more because of the pandemic, with people wanting to be out of the city, at their cottages, using boats, snowmobiles or ATVs.
“We have really good practices in place to avoid the public and us interacting, but with us having COVID that turns things into a bit of a different situation so we had to close,” she said. Though some customers have asked for contactless service with extra sanitation despite the closure and the symptoms Richards and her family are experiencing, she said she’s not willing to take that risk.
“It is an extremely contagious thing,” she said. “That’s probably the number one thing I have to say. It will infect everybody who comes into contact with it. There’s nobody immune to it. It may not be a death sentence, and I hope for most people it’s not. It’s not for us. But there are people that it is.”
Richards said her husband’s mother, who he had only been able to see during the pandemic through window visits, died of COVID-19 at the beginning of December, only three days after the long-term care facility she was at told the family she had contracted the virus through an outbreak at the residence.
“So some people really, really are at risk,” said Richards. “Even though for us it was mild, and we’re younger, and we could handle it, there’s people that can’t … and you don’t know who you’re going to be around and lead it to. So I think it’s important that if you happen to be the one who gets it, like us, that you stop it where it is and you don’t go out, and you close down your business and you just deal with it.”
With guidance from the health unit and following public health recommendations, Richards said her family hopes to reopen the marina as soon as possible, knowing it is relied on by snowmobilers in need of gas and supplies.
“We’ll be open as soon as we can be,” she said.
Richards reported that she and her husband received their results back on Jan. 7 and had tested positive for COVID-19. Two family members chose not to get the test. The Hamilton health unit contacted Richards on Jan. 8 to inform her that because Hamilton is still her legal address, their positive test results will be added to the case counts in that area, and not in the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District health unit’s local numbers though the family lives in Haliburton County. Richards said the family has been isolated since Dec. 24 and now that they have positive test results, the health unit has asked them to stay in quarantine until Jan. 17 because they are continuing to have symptoms.
“They gave a bit more clarity on why the longer isolation – it’s because we are continuing to have symptoms,” said Richards. ” She said each case is different. The minimum should be 14 days from date of exposure or confirmed test if date of exposure isn’t known but some people have longer cases of continuing symptoms due to different people’s ability to overcome the virus. If your immune system is compromised it may take some people longer and as my husband and I both have diabetes that could be the cause of the lingering symptoms. So basically, 14 days should be the minimum quarantine – not the maximum and this makes more sense to us.”
Richards said that although she and her family are still experiencing symptoms, they are continuing to improve.