More than 75 per cent of Manitoba First Nations now have active COVID-19 cases

The number of Manitoba First Nations with active COVID-19 cases has nearly doubled since December as the Omicron variant causes a surge of infections across the province.

49 of the 63 First Nations in Manitoba had cases as of Monday, nearly doubling since December

First Nations in Manitoba continue to grapple with the rapid spread of COVID-19, with 49 of 63 communities now reporting active cases. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The number of First Nations in Manitoba with active COVID-19 cases has nearly doubled since December as the Omicron variant causes a surge of infections in the province. 

The Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team says 49 of the 63 First Nations in the province had active COVID-19 cases as of Monday, up from the mid-twenties at the end of December. 

Last week, that number was in the low 40s. 

There were also 70 First Nations people in hospital with COVID-19 as of Jan. 6, when the team issued its latest weekly update, making up just over a quarter of the total number of people in hospital in Manitoba on that date. 

Rapid response teams have been deployed to four communities in need of additional support, said Dr. Marcia Anderson, public health lead of Manitoba's First Nations Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team.

They've also deployed surge support to 11 communities to help with vaccination efforts. 

But Anderson said her team is facing the same staffing challenges that other health-care agencies are facing due to people getting COVID-19 or being forced to self-isolate. 

"The concern is just with the higher number of cases, we wouldn't be able to deploy to all communities needing support."

Dr. Marcia Anderson, public health lead for the Manitoba First Nation Pandemic Response Coordination Team, says her team is regularly talking with the federal and provincial governments about what supports First Nations might need. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

She said that First Nations are feeling the impacts of health-care staffing shortages more acutely, since they don't have many health-care workers to begin with. 

At least 10 communities are in some kind of lockdown to help stop the spread of COVID-19. 

That includes St. Theresa Point, which has implemented a full community lockdown as of Sunday, telling people to stay in their homes unless they are essential workers, and closing all businesses. 

Calls for military support 

Last weekend, NDP MP for Churchill–Keewatinook Aski Niki Ashton told reporters that the chiefs she's talking to are overwhelmed by how many sick people — including children — they have in their communities and that support workers are themselves getting sick.

She publicly called on the federal government to send in military support. 

Anderson said her team and other First Nations leaders, such as Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, are regularly talking to the federal and provincial governments about what kind of support might be needed for communities dealing with outbreaks. 

As of right now, the position of the First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team is to use local resources while planning ahead in case extra support is needed, Anderson said. 

But if individual chiefs want to make a request for the military to come in, that would be up to them, she said. 

Jennifer Cooper, a spokesperson for the Indigenous Services Canada, said the federal government continues to engage with Indigenous leaders to ensure they are ready to respond, should federal assistance be required.

Any formal asks for support would have to go through the request for federal assistance (RFA) process, Cooper said. 

"There is a well-established process in place for managing RFAs, through the Government Operations Centre, that includes interdepartmental consultation and co-ordination as it pertains to resources."

MP's letter, comments called disrespectful

Meanwhile, Dumas called Ashton's comments a ploy for "political optics," saying her open letter and comments in the media were disrespectful to First Nation leadership, health leaders and the First Nations Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team. 

"We need immediate partnerships, planning and resources to ensure health services and access to critical infrastructure remain available," he said in a statement. 

"Calling in Canadian Armed Forces is a stopgap solution that does not take into consideration what First Nations need and want." 

Tuesday morning, Ashton responded to Dumas in a statement to CBC News.

"I am not sure what [Grand Chief] Arlen Dumas' personal or political agenda is, but my agenda is to make sure that northern and Indigenous communities get the supports they need during this public health emergency," Ashton said.

She maintains she has been in constant contact with First Nations people and leaders as case counts continue to surge.

"I appreciate the work that ministers [Harjit] Sajjan and [Marc] Miller did to respond to the calls for military help earlier in this pandemic. I hope the current ministers will continue this work. The federal government has shown that it can and will respond," Ashton said.

"I make no apologies for fighting for the resources that northern and Indigenous communities need to fight this pandemic and save lives."

With files from Julien Sahuquillo