Northern communities still struggling with higher than provincial average COVID cases
Mike Lawrence - Staff Writer
A COVID-19 outbreak in Kasabonika Lake First Nation has led the community to declare a state of emergency. As of Feb 1, there were 120 active cases listed through the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA) website, which tracks COVID activity across many northern communities. That number has since dropped, with the latest case counts showing 64 active cases on the SLFNHA’s COVID web page (https://www.slfnha.com/covid/) at the time this article went to print. SLFNHA Public Health Physician Dr. Lloyd Douglas had this to say on the situation in Kasabonika.
“So far things have improved somewhat in terms of there has been a decline in the number of cases (in Kasabonika). We are reporting 64 cases, but we have not received all the faxes in terms of cases from that community, so the numbers could be a little bit higher.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) shared on their Facebook page, on Feb. 28, “The Chief & Council of Kasabonika Lake First Nation are asking for your prayers after the recent loss of three members to COVID-19.”
The post further stated, “This remote community currently has the highest number of positive cases in NAN territory,” adding, “We are doing everything we can to assist.”
Douglas stated, “What we are aware of is that these deaths are related to the severe consequences of COVID… We have also had a few more hospitalizations from that community, and across the region. The numbers, in terms of hospitalizations, is going up. The numbers are showing an upward trend at this time. The Omicron is very infectious and has stricken a large number of individuals and unfortunately, we are seeing hospitalizations. Again, unfortunately of those who have been hospitalized, primarily they have not had that third dose. As we know, it is very protective.” Douglas added, “Again, the key message is this. Get your vaccine, and if you’ve had two doses, please go get your booster shot. I think my tagline recently is that the pandemic is not over.”
Asked about the recent conclusion of the Operation Immunity (O.I.) program in northern communities, Douglas explained, “Operation Remote Immunity 3.0 wrapped, I think, a couple of weeks ago. We are very grateful for O.I. 3.0, it was a joint effort with Indigenous Services Canada, Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, the tribal councils, NAN, and Ornge. Our vaccination rates could have been higher, but thankfully we have in some communities very good vaccine coverage rates.” The wrapping up of the Operation Remote Immunity program doesn’t mean vaccinations in northern communities will be difficult to get, however, as Douglas added, “Every community has what we call a steady state program where vaccinations are available, and even in some communities we have enough individuals to have some surge capacity, and at SLFNHA, and with the tribal councils, we will work with Indigenous Services Canada to do smaller type clinics, vaccine clinics. “
Speaking to the push in some areas of Ontario to ease restrictions, due in part to dropping provincial COVID rates, Douglas commented, “That is not the case in the north. A province wide approach, in terms of easing these restrictions may not be the best way to go when you consider what is happening in our communities, I know it creates that sense of ‘But everybody is moving ahead why can’t we?’… but our numbers are extremely high at this time.” Douglas then continued, “For the most part the chiefs, the SLFNHA Board, they understand the situation that’s facing us right now, and I believe that the measures we have in place in general across the region… we are still being vigilant.”
Another voice urging restraint in the lifting of restrictions in the north is Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong.
Mamakwa feels the one size fits all approach to easing of restrictions might leave northern communities fending for themselves, “I think it’s important to acknowledge that Ontario, and this government, continues to leave northern Ontario out of the loop in making decisions on what happens with COVID-19. It has an impact on the health and the lives of the people that live up here. I think what is clear as well, in the calls that I have had with First Nations leadership and the fly in communities, is that we’d better be careful, we’d better be ready, because the government won’t be here to help.”
Mamakwa continued, “I think it’s very wise when they make those decisions to take time and make sure that they are not hit. I was on a call two days ago listening to the Chief’s… it was very sad to hear Kasabonika’s Chief speak. He thanked the First Nations leadership and the organizations that were supporting them, but he couldn’t finish what he was trying to say. You could hear the emotion when he spoke… The government does not consider those things, and even though it’s a regional thing, they should have done that.”