2 northern Manitoba First Nations taking measures to combat COVID-19 outbreaks

The security team staffing the highway checkpoint leading into Chemawawin Cree Nation and Easterville is turning away anyone who doesn’t live or work in the community.

“No exceptions,” said security supervisor Quentin Mink. “We take the spread of COVID-19 very seriously.”

Everyone else gets their temperature taken, identity recorded and COVID survey done before they’re permitted entry. 

The area about 400 kilometres north of Winnipeg has been under total lockdown since late March when one case of the virus led to exponential spread throughout the community of about 1,500.

There are 136 cases and 238 contacts identified, as well as three people in hospital, said Chief Clarence Easter. Masks are mandatory everywhere and a stay-at-home order is in place, although he says that’s been difficult to enforce.

“It’s a struggle, and it’s a challenge,” he said. “Because everyday needs are a reality.”

Easter said the outbreak started in the First Nation’s band office and spread among those who work there, then their families. Overcrowding and substandard housing is leading to rapid spread of the virus among entire families, he said.  Known positive cases are being sent out of the community to isolate.

A small group of nurses and doctors sent by the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team is helping the community test and trace dozens people a day for the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. 

Chief Easter goes on local radio every day, urging people to stay home, wear masks and go out only for essential items. Everything is closed except for the local store, he said, but he’s still seeing far too many people out and about. 

“Pretty hectic because you don’t know who they are either, hard to do that, you have to just take the same breath as everybody. Everybody’s a contact and everybody’s a positive.”

Chemawawain Cree Nation held a vaccine clinic in late March and eligible people can still go to the nursing station to get their shot. 

‘Very organized clinic’: Bunibonibee chief

An outbreak has also been declared at Bunibonibee Cree Nation, also known as Oxford House, roughly 575 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. Chief Richard Hart says there are 54 active cases in the community of about 3,000 people — a number that’s been stable for about a week. 

The outbreak coincides with Bunibonibee’s mass vaccination clinic, held in the elemtary school’s gym, which Hart says has had a great turnout so far.

Chief Richard Hart says many people in Bunibonibee Cree Nation are eager to get the vaccine, especially considering how hard COVID-19 hit the community in December. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

On its first day, nearly 400 people got their Moderna shot, putting a significant dent in the First Nation’s supply of 1,200 doses.

“Our goal is to ensure we utilize every drop of the vaccine that has come into our community,” he said.

“That’s our sole focus and we’ve been working hard to get people out and first day has shown that we got a good turnout and hopefully we can wrap up the clinic earlier than intended.”

Staff from the Red Cross, Keewatin Tribal Council, Health Canada and province’s public health team are working with the local health team to lead a “very quick, very efficient and very organized clinic,” he added. 

“There doesn’t seem to be the vaccine hesitancy that has been seen in other places,” he said, adding the leadership is working to get supply for off-reserve band members too.  

A devastating outbreak in December led to 21 of the community’s elders who tested positive being flown out to Winnipeg. Hart said five of those elders died of COVID-19, along with another person in their 60s who died of the virus more recently.

Bunibonibee is dealing with its third and, so far, smallest outbreak.

“The community as a whole has been through a lot,” Hart said.

“It’s been a real grind, I guess, I would say. We’re living … we as a community have experienced first-hand the loss of loved ones to this virus.” 

That collective sense of loss is a big part of why people are eager to get vaccinated now, he said. 

“The vaccinations, it’s not about the individual, it’s not about you. It’s about protecting your loved ones, protecting your children and grandchildren and those people who have compromised health systems.”

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