'Spirits are lifted' as military assesses need in Pimicikamak, chief says

For the first time in weeks, relief is spreading throughout a northern Manitoba First Nation dealing with an onslaught of COVID-19 cases.

Also known as Cross Lake First Nation, community has 205 active cases, and numbers keep growing

Members of Pimicikamak, the armed forces, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak met on Friday to discuss the need for more help to battle COVID-19 in the northern First Nation. (Submitted by David Monias)

For the first time in weeks, relief is spreading throughout a northern Manitoba First Nation dealing with an onslaught of COVID-19 cases.

Pimicikamak Chief David Monias' call for help arrived by plane on Friday. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces are now on the ground to assess what's needed as the community struggles to contain the concerning outbreak.

"Our spirits were lifted because we've now seen some resources that may be able to help with our crisis in the community," he said.

At last count, there were 205 active cases in the community of about 8,000 as well as hundreds of potential exposures. 

Nearly half of the cases — 87 — are in children, and a quarter of the cases are tied to a wake, funeral and birthday party in the community about 530 kilometres from Manitoba from earlier this month. 

Also known as Cross Lake Cree Nation, Pimicikamak is located about 530 km north of Winnipeg. It was moved to the critical red level on Manitoba's pandemic response system and has at least 23 confirmed case of COVID-19. (Submitted by Kyle Scribe)

People have been isolating in the school gym, a hotel and classrooms, but space is running out and so far, and as of Saturday 146 people were sent to Winnipeg to isolate.

Monias says medical staff couldn't keep up with the number of contacts coming in.

"People could not be sent out fast enough," he said.

Pimicikamak had been proactive in its response so far with 24-hour check stops on the winter road, designated grocery shopping times for different sections of the community and the local health team doing testing and tracing.

The community has also been in a complete lockdown since October.

The members of the military who are in the community are working to identify any gaps in the existing framework that they can fill in, says Monias.

That may involve evacuating people to alternate isolation accommodations and doing food deliveries, he said.

The chief says the amount of work community members are doing to keep people safe is amazing, but they're beyond exhausted and need support from the military.

"We're so understaffed because people are getting sick, people are becoming contacts and we're having positives, so they're having to isolate. We're running out of resources and we're running out of energy," Monias says, adding he hopes a bigger team will be returning to help lessen the burden.

Vaccination at Pimicikamak

A light at the end of the tunnel is that more doses of the Moderna vaccine arrived at the community in the last week, and nearly all have been administered, Monias says.

Ten or so doses are being put aside for people who had to go south to isolate. There are a few extra doses on site in the First Nation that will serve as the first dose for front-line health-care workers and elders.

However, Monias isn't sure when the next shipment will arrive.

Starting this week, Manitobans who are 95 and older can get the vaccine, as well as First Nations people 75 and over.

Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead for Manitoba's vaccine task force says age is adjusted to account for disparities related to access to services, housing issues and poverty.

First Nations people account for more than two-thirds of the province's active COVID-19 cases, but only make up ten percent of the population.

"We see that First Nations people are experiencing the more severe health outcomes related to COVID at much younger ages. and there's almost a 20 year discrepancy in the average age of death between a first nations person with COVID compared to all other Manitobans with COVID," she said on Friday.

"If we didn't adjust this age, it would be unfair to First Nations people in Manitoba because it's essentially punishing people who experience a lower life expectancy, who already experience more negative health outcomes."

Pauingassi First Nation prepared a special lunch for members of the military to thank them for their help. (Submitted by Sandra Owen)

Elsewhere, 18 members of the military have now left Pauingassi First Nation, which a fly-in community about 250 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

Military members arrived on Feb. 6 and helped with wellness checks, distributing donated food and delivering wood to homes.

"The CAF is proud to have worked alongside our partners and community members to bring needed relief and assistance," a spokesperson said in an email.

With files from Erin Brohman