Nestled in the Madawaska Valley a stone’s throw from Algonquin Park is Barry’s Bay, a small rustic community known as an escape for cottage goers in the summer and a destination for snowmobilers in the winter.

But a recent outbreak in the picturesque town prompted the local acting medical officer of health to single out the community as an outlier in Renfrew County for having been repeatedly overrepresented in the region’s case counts, which officials have linked to travel and vaccine hesitancy among a significant portion of the population.

Although Barry’s Bay only has about one per cent of the county’s population, it has represented 24 to more than 50 per cent of its cases during outbreaks. As Ontario grapples with a and looks to schools reopening in September, the local health unit has put out several videos over the last week stressing the urgency for residents — especially in Barry’s Bay — to get vaccinated to prevent the Delta variant from sweeping through schools in the fall.

Earlier this month, the region’s top doctor, Dr. Robert Cushman, characterized Barry’s Bay as “a case study for what the Delta variant can do in a small town when there are a large number of people who are unvaccinated.”

The outbreaks and finger pointing have caused tension, often playing out in social media discussion groups but also in local businesses. Some residents blame out-of-towners for bringing the virus, while others point to the local Catholic community and say their religious objections to vaccines and masks put the community at risk.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College, a local Catholic post-secondary school, has also been criticized because several of its faculty members have publicly opposed masks and vaccination, but the college says their personal views do not prevent them from enforcing public health restrictions.

Over a three-week period in July, Barry’s Bay recorded 12 cases for a population of some 1,200, compared to 11 cases in the rest of Renfrew County, which has a population of more than 100,000. In January and February, Barry’s Bay saw more cases over six weeks than in all of 2020.

‘Barry’s Bay is one of our worst areas” for transmission, Cushman said. “The two that it competes with were one tiny area where we had a crazy Thanksgiving dinner six months ago, which blew that place up but it’s been quiet since then, and the other is the Mennonite community.

“If you look at sort of sporadic activity rather than super-spreading activity they certainly are first in line for us.”

Cushman says the area is experiencing a pandemic of the unvaccinated — none of the 12 people infected in July were immunized. Those cases led to an additional 62 high-risk contacts who were forced to isolate. Of the 75 people who were affected, only five were fully vaccinated.

“When you put those numbers into the Canadian context … When less than 10 per cent of the high-risk contacts are fully vaccinated, it’s clear you’ve got a problem here,” Cushman said.

He said forcing 75 people to isolate had a “devastating” impact on the local economy: six businesses were affected, four of which were temporarily closed. He estimates it led to about 500 work days lost.

He noted that Barry’s Bay is highly dependent on tourism and it’s having an impact.

“We’ve heard that customers are very wary, whether they be tourists or locals, they don’t want to jeopardize their health by going into a restaurant or a bar.”

One of those people is Christina Murie, a Toronto resident with a cottage near Barry’s Bay. She said she usually spends about four to five months of the year at her cottage and often shops in town, but she hasn’t been frequenting the area as much this year because of her concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks.

She said she often sees customers in shops flouting public health guidelines by not wearing masks. In one case, she was threatened by a local shop employee over a mask dispute.

“I’m kind of hesitant to go up there right now knowing there was an outbreak and there’s so many anti-maskers and anti-vax people there,” she said. “I’m actually feeling safer in Toronto right now.”

In addition to tourists visiting Barry’s Bay, vaccine hesitancy is a challenge. The surges in Barry’s Bay “indicate that there’s a lot of resistance up there,” Cushman said.

Some people, he said, have reasonable concerns such as missing a day of work due to having a sore arm or experiencing complications for those with pre-existing conditions.

Religious objections have proven to be a prominent reason for vaccine hesitancy, based on the false claim that vaccines contain aborted fetal cells. None of the COVID-19 vaccines used in Canada or the United States contain aborted fetal cells, but fetal cell lines, which are grown in a laboratory, are used in testing for the mRNA vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Fetal cell cultures were used in the production of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

Mark Woermke, a local resident and writer for the Madawaska Valley Current, wrote a column in February about an anti-lockdown protest he observed in Barry’s Bay. He references two local publications, LifeSiteNews and Catholic Insight, which he says have stoked and encouraged the views of townspeople opposing vaccination by promoting skepticism about the efficacy of masks and conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID vaccines.

“I was trying to demonstrate to local readers that this community is housing two right-wing, Catholic, pretty extreme publications that are definitely opposed to masking and vaccination and think that COVID is a hoax and conspiracy … those ideas are trickling down to local people who are making health decisions based on that misinformation,” Woermke said.

As an example, he points to the comments section of an August article in the Madawaska Valley Current about the cases seen over three weeks in July. A commenter says she’s opposed to vaccines based on her belief that they are made from aborted fetal cells. She states that the Delta variant is “more transmissible but much weaker” and contends companies like Pfizer and Moderna are “making billions upon billions of dollars on the backs of an abortion industry.”

The nearly 1,000-word comment swings from concerns about aborted fetal cells and adverse reactions to conspiratorial tropes about Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci gaining from the pandemic.

“It basically confirmed that her understanding of masking and COVID and vaccinations is formed solely by LifeSiteNews,” Woermke said, adding that while he could not be 100 per cent sure, he noticed similar themes and pointed to two names the commenter cited who are frequently quoted or featured on LifeSiteNews.

The website, whose videos have been permanently banned on YouTube and Facebook for spreading misinformation, is full of articles with dubious and misleading claims about masks and vaccines.

LifeSiteNews hosts contributions from several faculty members at a Catholic post-secondary institution in Barry’s Bay, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College, including John Paul Meenan, one of the college’s founders, as well as Kenton Biffert, the college’s dean of students. Both have authored articles expressing skepticism about masks and vaccines.

The small private Catholic liberal arts college was founded in 2000 and has about 90 students enrolled in the coming year, with 10 of those students coming from Barry’s Bay and surrounding area. There are about 30 staff members, who are mostly based locally, the college said.

Critics of the college, whose motto is Latin for “The truth will set you free,” say some of its faculty members are a source of misinformation that is fuelling vaccine hesitancy and COVID-19 outbreaks in the community.

Jenny Hayden-Baklinski is a former drama teacher at the college who served as an adjunct faculty member for 10 years on and off. She says she left the college in 2018 because she didn’t believe it made enough of an effort to distance itself from “extreme views” expressed by faculty members on websites such as LifeSiteNews.

She’s written to the college’s president expressing her concerns about what she says is a lax approach to enforcing public health guidelines. For example, she is concerned that Biffert, the dean of students who wrote in a now deleted post on his website that “masking is stupid,” is in charge of supervising the quarantine for international students at the college. He is also the person they must report symptoms to.

“I’ve been vocal against things for many, many years internally, without seeing a change or an increase of safety … The reason why (I’m speaking) now is because I believe COVID is a huge problem and I’m aware of a community that has expressed profound disregard and denial of something that will not only impact my family directly but impact my isolated rural town,” Hayden-Baklinski said.

She said religious leaders in the community, including Meenan, who teaches theology at the college and is an editor of Catholic Insight, have promoted the idea that there is a moral obligation to avoid vaccines because receiving them would be “remote participation in evil.”

Meenan has written on various websites that he is skeptical of masks for medical and moral reasons. In response to an interview request, Meenan sent the Star a statement where he said what he writes does not represent the position of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College.

“My position on these matters is not fixed, evolving as new evidence emerges and the situation unfolds,” Meenan said. “I strive to find a balance, through mutual dialogue, between maintaining our Charter Rights and Freedoms, and what we might, and should, do to protect the vulnerable.”

In addition to her concerns with faculty members, Hayden-Baklinski said there is a large ultra-conservative Catholic community in Barry’s Bay who homeschool and mostly believe COVID-19 is a hoax or overblown. She said she personally knows many religious families in the community who not only refuse vaccinations, but even testing for the coronavirus.

“So many families have said out loud that if their children are sick, they will not take them to the doctor because they will not allow their children to be tested for COVID,” she said. “I’m talking hundreds of people. We are ready for a variant — we’re just the perfect incubation box.”

In a statement, the college said it had one positive case of COVID-19 on campus in July, which led to three staff members identified as close contacts. The college is only offering one online class this summer, said interim president Christine Schintgen.

She added that the college takes enforcing COVID protocols issued by all levels of government “very seriously.”

“Regarding the personal views of our employees, it is important to note that one’s opinion about public health guidelines is distinct from one’s willingness to follow and enforce them,” she added.

Cushman acknowledged “certain church groups have been less than helpful” but added that he hoped the community could come together to drive case counts down at what is a pivotal time.

In terms of vaccinations in the county, “we all know that the last 15 per cent is going to be rough … There’s ample opportunity for the Delta virus to cause a lot of trouble, a lot of pain and suffering, both in terms of health and social and economic,” Cushman said. “So we have to make use of what we have, our best available defences. And one is vaccination and the second is public health measures.”

In addition to their outreach on social media, Cushman said the county is offering pop-up and after-hour clinics to encourage more residents to get vaccinated

Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: