Pauingassi First Nation goes into lockdown after a quarter of members test positive for COVID-19

Public health officials, in tandem with the chief and council of Pauingassi First Nation, have moved the community into red, or critical, level for COVID-19 restrictions.

Chief tests positive 3 days after receiving Moderna shot, but says not related to inoculation

Pauingassi Chief Roddy Owens says he tested positive for COVID-19 three days after receiving his first shot of the Moderna vaccine. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The chief and council of Pauingassi First Nation have shut down band operations, closed schools, prohibited public gatherings and are requiring residents to stay home after declaring an outbreak of COVID-19.

The small remote community northeast of Winnipeg has just under 500 people on-reserve. Almost a quarter of them, 118, have tested positive for the coronavirus since Jan. 20, Chief Roddy Owens said.

"It's a major outbreak. We did the best we could at the start," said Owens. "But our nursing station is only served by two nurses and they were quickly getting overwhelmed by the increase in cases, having to contact trace and test. It didn't take long for a backlog."

Owens was one of the people who tested positive, despite getting the Moderna vaccine. 

He says he got the shot on Jan. 20, when about 60 doses arrived in the community. At first he thought his persistent headaches, chest pain, cough and loss of appetite were side-effects from the vaccine. But three days later, on Jan. 23, he found out he had COVID-19 and it was not related to being inoculated.

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Monday at the COVID-19 update that that's not unusual. 

"Remember, with that vaccine, the first dose, we're not going to see any or limited benefit until 14 days after the first dose, and not the significant benefit until, you know, a week or so after the second dose," said Roussin.

It is possible to be exposed to COVID-19 just days before receiving the vaccine and still test positive for it, he said.

Owens is still recovering, while 45 people from his community have had to be flown to Winnipeg for medical care.

"It's safer for them to leave because we have very little resources at our nursing station, and one of them might take a turn for the worse. They can't be treated here. They would have to be sent out by medevac, and there is always a lot of unknowns with that, such as delays due to bad weather," Owens said.

It has been a slow process getting those infected flown out and he is not sure why, he said. The longer patients remain in the community, the greater the chance for the virus to spread, he said.

The outbreak in Pauingassi began in December, when the First Nation had a handful of positive cases. Owens believes those cases were related to people returning to the community after receiving medical treatment.

Because the numbers were so few then, it was easier to contain. Isolation now within the community is difficult because of overcrowded housing.

Roussin is advising people only leave their homes to get a COVID-19 test or seek medical care, and only one person is permitted to get essential supplies. Those working in essential services can leave their homes for work.

Non-medical masks must be worn outside the home.

Safety officers hired by the band are patrolling more frequently to make sure people are abiding by the tight restrictions, Owens said.

"Most are listening, but you have some that don't want to follow the rules," he said.

He is banking on people to stay the course in an effort to bring the numbers down.

"This virus is scary. Once it breaks out it is hard to contain. It spreads so rapidly. We have to do our part."

With files from Erin Brohman