As Violet Tomagatick awaited the birth of her fourth child in Timmins last month, she couldn’t help but follow news from back home in Moose Factory, some 300 kilometres to the north. There was word of potential travel restrictions and self-isolation, and she wondered what that might mean for her planned post-birth return.
While her hometown’s Weeneebayko General Hospital offers prenatal care, it doesn’t have enough physicians trained in obstetrics to deliver babies. So Tomagatick and her grandmother had had to take the train to Timmins on March 9 to access health care in the city, leaving her children — Dawn, 9; Ashanti, 6; and Paige Wesley, 2 — with family.
It’s a common-enough trip for expectant mothers from Moose Factory, but the coronavirus pandemic created a new set of concerns. “I'm just worried that I'll be stuck in Timmins,” she said on March 18 from a hotel. “I'll be having my baby soon — like, any day now, [and I’m] thinking about my kids back home, getting stressed out about everything.”
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B. Anthony Armson, president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, notes that “the biggest stressor in any circumstance is the uncertainty and lack of information,” which is why “we would strongly promote and advocate for regular contact with a pregnant woman's care provider.” But he worries about the impact the added strain on hospitals from COVID-19 could have on pregnant women requiring isolation. “Depending on the volume of those types of cases,” he says, “it would very quickly deplete resources in terms of the ability to isolate a large number of women in rooms and the ability to maintain all of the protective equipment that [hospital staff] would require.”
Amanda Levencrown, a midwife with the Ontario Association of Midwives, acknowledges that health and housing infrastructure limitations present unique risks, especially for remote Indigenous communities. And, like Armson, she considers COVID-19 an added stressor. “When you have a baby, your whole life changes as your body changes,” Levencrown says. “Your mood changes and everything. And you can imagine having to be self-isolated in an area of fear already with this new body and this new baby.”
Armson says that, despite the fact that pregnant women are generally at a higher risk for contracting respiratory illnesses, studies so far have shown they are not more affected by COVID-19. “The evidence that we have today — based not a very high number of cases — suggests that pregnant women do not seem to have any worse a prognosis or more difficulty dealing with this virus then than non-pregnant people.” Armson adds that there is no evidence of vertical transmission, which refers to a mother passing an illness to a baby during pregnancy or childbirth.
After having her youngest daughter, Tasha Ethel, on March 22, Violet was allowed to return home. But, though she arrived back in Moose Factory last week, she hasn’t yet able to introduce her other children to their newest sibling. The protocol in Moose Factory is that anyone who has visited anywhere in Canada known to have a case of COVID-19 must self-isolate for two weeks after their return. The Porcupine Health Unit on March 19 confirmed that Timmins had its first case, and by March 26, the fifth and sixth case had been confirmed. One was in nearby Cochrane, where the train connects to Moosonee, the community adjacent to Moose Factory. As a result, Violet and her newborn girl are in isolation together, and other family members are taking care of Dawn, Ashanti, and Paige Wesley.
Levencrown advises that new mothers monitor for any symptoms and wash their hands before handling their babies. The most common thing she hears from them during this time is that they feel they are missing out on the social element of having a newborn. “It's a huge social time when you have a baby,” she says. “People want to come over, and they want to hold the baby; they want to see the baby. They bring guests, things like that. And moms are feeling sad. They're feeling isolated.”
She also suggests that mothers who are self-isolating continue to maintain social connections through technology, if possible. “Book a coffee date or time with a friend online and with your baby. Stay in your gross clothes. You can nurse your baby right on the screen, have your tea beside you. Just keep it on and have a chat with a friend.”
Back in Moose Factory, Violet says she’s “just glad to be home” — although she adds that home looks very different at the moment. As a result of aggressive social distancing to mitigate any spread of the virus, the once lively streets are empty: “Looks like ghost town when I got back.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.