Manitoba First Nations lock down, seek help as COVID-19 threatens communities

COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths are increasing at an alarming rate on Manitoba First Nations, prompting many of them to lock down and call in help as they try to protect their most vulnerable members.

Ottawa sends money, paramedics and nurses to Indigenous communities for pandemic support

Members of the First Nation-run Rapid Response Team conduct COVID-19 testing at York Factory First Nation on Oct. 1. Manitoba First Nations are calling in help as the province deals with widespread community transmission. (Ongomiizwin Indigenous Health Institute)

COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths are increasing at an alarming rate on Manitoba First Nations, prompting many of them to lock down and call in help as they try to protect their most vulnerable members.

"We're in a bubble right now. And if we had a bubble earlier, I think we would have still had my auntie living today," said Rhonda Head, whose aunt, Cecilia Head, died of complications related to COVID-19 on Nov. 10, and whose uncle, Walter, is also infected and in hospital.

"His condition was was deteriorating but there was an update from my one of my cousins and she said that he's improving slightly but he will be in hospital for a very long time," she said from her home on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN), about a seven-hour drive north of Winnipeg.

Cecilia Head, right, was the first victim of COVID-19 on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba. Her husband, Walter, is in hospital battling the coronavirus. They are just two of the Indigenous faces behind Manitoba's grim statistics. (Submitted by Rhonda Head)

As of Thursday morning, all of Manitoba was in a critical Code Red pandemic response as hospital intensive care units near capacity. Doctors and nurses are speaking out about how close the system is to being overloaded.

In the first wave of the pandemic, most of Manitoba's COVID-19 cases were connected to travel, so when First Nations locked down, they managed to keep the coronavirus out.

But now, there's widespread community transmission across the province. The virus has snuck into many First Nations, hitting many of them hard.

Disproportionate COVID cases in First Nations

According to the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba, a group promoting Indigenous involvement in the health system, First Nations people make up approximately nine per cent of Manitoba's population, yet they account for:

  • 18 per cent of the province's COVID-19 cases.

  • 24 per cent of hospitalizations.

  • 35 per cent of patients in ICU beds.

  • 12 per cent of deaths.

Many remote First Nations are already struggling with overcrowding, poverty, a lack of clean drinking water and adequate sanitation, food insecurity and chronic diseases like diabetes, which can make people more vulnerable to infection.

WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin urges Manitobans to follow restrictive new orders:

'Now is the time to act': Dr. Roussin on climbing COVID-19 numbers

1 year ago
Duration 1:29
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, urged Manitobans to step up and follow public health orders. 1:29

"In recent weeks, we have seen an alarming rise in COVID cases in the general Canadian population, as well as in some First Nations communities, related to complacency, at times, related to large gatherings such as funerals, such as some weddings, such as rallies and also visiting hotspots outside of Indigenous communities and unknowingly bring back the virus to the community," Dr. Tom Wong, Chie​f Medical Health Officer for Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), said in an interview from Ottawa.

Nationally, as of Nov. 9, ISC reports the percentage of First Nations people living on-reserve who tested positive for COVID-19 is one-half the rate of the general Canadian population.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 case fatality rate for First Nations people living on-reserve is about one-fifth that of the fatality rate in the general Canadian population.

In Manitoba, however, the statistics in Indigenous communities are moving in the opposite direction, which is "disturbing," Wong said. He pointed to the province's overall provincial infection rate, which is currently the highest per capita in Canada.

As of Nov. 12, Manitoba had 606 cases on First Nations reserves, compared to 187 in British Columbia, 168 in Ontario and 117 in Quebec. Alberta had 665, according to Indigenous Services Canada.

"We are here to stand behind First Nations, Métis and Inuit wherever they live, including urban areas, so that they don't develop the disease and don't end up succumbing to the disease," Wong said.

Surge capacity from Ottawa

It's why the federal government announced an additional $61.4 million for Manitoba First Nations and their urban members this week. 

"The overwhelming refrain, concern that we kept hearing is that 'We have our pandemic response plans that we've fine-tuned throughout the first wave. We need financial resources,'" said Marc Miller, the Indigenous services minister.

The money Ottawa provided can be spent on everything from pandemic supplies like plexiglass to security at checkpoints and mental health services. It's meant to help those living off-reserve as well.

Ottawa has also sent 44 paramedics and nearly 200 nurses into Indigenous communities across Canada and made 160 temporary structures available for isolation and testing sites.

First Nations leaders in Manitoba are pleased with the cash injection, although they say they could always use more. They are less satisfied with the province's management of the pandemic.

"I think it's unfortunate now that the province is declaring everybody Code Red. It's a little late. We should have done that two months ago. You should have listened to the direction that your partners were giving you, and unfortunately, the consequences are dire," said Arlen Dumas, head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

"We're well aware of the vulnerability of our population. And I think it's showing true now."

Dr. Marcia Anderson helps lead the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 pandemic response team. (Submitted by Dr. Marcia Anderson)

'The quicker we contain it, the fewer deaths … we will see'

First Nations-run Rapid Response Teams are working in a handful of communities, including York Factory First Nation, which has been in lockdown since a family of seven tested positive for the illness last week, and Opaskwayak Cree Nation, which has a 20 per cent infection rate.

The focus is up to 10 days of acute surge support while longer-term plans can be made, said Dr. Marcia Anderson, one of the physicians overseeing the program.

"You have a single nursing station. Often those nursing stations are running at a baseline understaffed capacity so when you have an upswing in cases, their contacts can quickly overwhelm the health care capacity in the community and there are less options for safe isolation," said Anderson, executive director of Indigenous academic affairs at the Ongomiizwin Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing at the University of Manitoba.

"With the rapid testing, we try to do [it] very quickly … identify both cases and close contacts and make sure they are isolated safely to try to reduce that transmission."

Rhonda Head sings at the No Stone Unturned concert in honor of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Winnipeg on Aug. 25, 2018. Now she is working on songs to sing at her aunt's online memorial. Cecilia Head died of complications related to COVID-19. (Edith Turner)

Rhonda Head said she believes local leaders are doing everything possible to keep the community protected. But she, too, worries it won't be enough.

"This is real. If it's happening here in my community in northern Manitoba, it's real. It's happening everywhere. Let's let's try and flatten the curve," she said.

As Head practices a Cree hymn to sing at her aunt's online memorial, all she can do is follow the public health orders, and pray for her uncle.

With files from Cameron MacIntosh

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now