Manitoba

Manitoba First Nations leaders consider more lockdowns as COVID-19 case numbers rise

Cases of COVID-19 are spreading quickly in at least half of all First Nations in Manitoba, with at least three chiefs considering declaring states of emergency for their communities, officials say.

Lack of proper housing, overcrowding contributing to spread, says Pimicikamak Cree Nation chief

A nurse takes a COVID-19 swab on Peguis First Nation in February 2021. The Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team says more than 40 of the 63 First Nations in Manitoba had active COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday. (Peguis First Nation/Facebook)

With COVID-19 cases spreading quickly in at least half of all First Nations in Manitoba, some chiefs are considering declaring states of emergency for their communities, officials say.

The Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team says more than 40 of the 63 First Nations in Manitoba had active COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday. That's up from the low 20s before Christmas.

The current five-day test positivity rate on-reserve is 25 per cent, the pandemic response team said in its Thursday update.

At least eight communities in the north already have some form of lockdown or travel restrictions in place. The Southern Chiefs' Organization says at least two southern communities are currently under lockdown, with another under partial lockdown.

Three chiefs told CBC News they are mulling whether to declare a state of emergency. 

Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias said with at least 114 active cases in his community right now, he's considering the move. He expects the true number of cases is much higher, since people have been relying on rapid tests and waiting days for their PCR test results.

A lack of proper housing in the First Nation is contributing to spread, Monias said. One home in his community has 39 people living in it.

"If there's overcrowding that means there's less room to social distance, less room to isolate, and you only have one washroom," he said. "The risk increases tenfold."

Pimicikimak Cree Nation Chief David Monias receives his second COVID-19 shot in March 2021. He is mulling whether to declare a state of emergency in his community. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

A recent study conducted by two University of Manitoba professors and published by the University of Brandon's Rural Development Institute suggests COVID-19 rates in First Nations are linked to housing and infrastructure issues that increase the odds of exposure to infectious diseases.

They compared rates in 23 Manitoba First Nations to 67 non-First Nation communities. For example, infection rates in Pukatawagan and the Island Lake communities were 10 times higher than the Manitoba average.

On-reserve per capita rates were strongly associated with overcrowded housing, unsuitable or poor housing, housing needing major repairs, and with remote fly-in only communities with no local hospitals, the researchers said.

In 2016, the researchers say seven per cent of non-First Nations people in Manitoba lived in unsuitable housing, defined as a home without enough bedrooms for the household size, compared to 37 per cent of First Nations people living on reserve.

Higher infection rates were also seen in some isolated First Nations across Canada during the H1N1 influenza pandemic.

"Infrastructure inequities lead to poorer health outcomes, including COVID-19 per capita rates, exacerbating the vulnerability of First Nations," the authors said.

Manto Sipi Cree Nation Chief John Ross says he knows of at least 64 positive cases as of Thursday in his community, also known as Gods River. 

That's the most the community has seen since the pandemic began, which he said has seen only a few positive cases since March 2020. 

"We do believe we are in a state of emergency at this time," he said. "We need outside resources to come in and help, to bring … positive cases down and to try and contain the virus from spreading."

He says he doesn't know how the northern community, which has a population of about 650, will be able to contain the virus given how transmissible its Omicron variant is, and the lack of housing that makes it impossible for people to isolate. 

"Any kind of sickness that comes into your home, even if it's just one person, that impacts everybody in the household."

Staff shortage

Pimicikamak is also dealing with staff shortages at the nursing station. It usually has 16 nurses serving approximately 8,500 people living on reserve, but that has dwindled to four in recent weeks, Monias said. 

The province has not confirmed any Omicron cases in any First Nations community as of Wednesday, but Monias suspects there may be some present already. 

First Nations are currently seeing a mix of cases caused by the Delta and Omicron variants, "although over the next 7-10 days it is likely the Omicron variant will take over as the dominant strain," the pandemic response team said in its Thursday update.

Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation Chief Marcel Moody said his community currently has about 36 known cases, which is the most he's seen in the entire pandemic. About 80 homes are currently isolating. 

Rapid rise in COVID-19 cases has First Nations on alert

11 months ago
Duration 2:41
Cases of COVID-19 are spreading quickly in at least half of all First Nations in Manitoba, with some chiefs considering declaring states of emergency for their communities.

"It's so frustrating," he said. "We try our best to contain the virus, but it seems no matter what we do, it was bound to come in."

Moody said Wednesday he planned to meet with his council again to talk about whether to declare a state of emergency.

After nearly two years of living in a pandemic, people in the community are getting tired of restrictions, so it's hard to get them to follow them, he said.

"You can imagine how people feel. You can't do the things that they normally do," he said. 

"But we have to continue to do what's best for our community," Moody said. "You can't throw in the towel and let the virus win."

Rapid tests and masks

The Southern Chiefs' Organization is in the process of sourcing more rapid test kits for every southern First Nation community in the next 10 days, a spokesperson said. Some have already been distributed.

The organization also plans to distribute KN95 masks.

"Due to the housing and infrastructure crisis on First Nations, our people are particularly at risk of exposure to the highly transmissible Omicron variant," a statement from the organization said.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents over two dozen northern First Nations, said Indigenous Services Canada is shipping more rapid tests to communities as cases rise.

An MKO spokesperson said First Nations can also refer community members to alternative isolation accommodation sites for those who test positive due to a positive case in their household.

The northern organization confirmed 10 First Nation communities are already under some form of lockdown or travel restrictions:

  • Barren Lands First Nation (Brochet).
  • Bunibonibee Cree Nation (Oxford House).
  • God's Lake First Nation (God's Lake Narrows).
  • Northlands First Nation (Lac Brochet).
  • Manto Sipi Cree Nation (God's River).
  • Marcel Colomb First Nation (Lynn Lake).
  • Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (Nelson House).
  • Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake).
  • Sayisi Dene Denesuline Nation (Tadoule Lake).
  • Tataskweyak Cree Nation (Split Lake).

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada says it continues to work closely with Manitoba First Nation communities to manage cases of COVID-19 through support planning and preparedness and response activities.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story referred to a Brandon University study. In fact, the study was conducted by professors at the University of Manitoba and published by the University of Brandon's Rural Development Institute.
    Jan 06, 2022 8:52 PM CT

With files from Sheila North

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