First Nation coronavirus preparedness questioned, but experts say risk remains low in Manitoba

In the unlikely event a patient appears at a Manitoba hospital with symptoms, they're ready to deal with it, according to the province's top public health specialists. But one panellist at a University of Manitoba discussion about coronavirus raised questions Wednesday about how ready First Nations communities are.

Limited risk of transmitting coronavirus in Manitoba, infectious disease specialists say

A panel of infectious disease specialists speaking at a forum on the new coronavirus held at the University of Manitoba on Wednesday. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

While experts say the risk of exposure is currently low for Manitobans, questions were raised Wednesday about the level of preparedness on First Nations in the province for dealing with the novel coronavirus.

A panel of public health specialists held a public forum at the University of Manitoba on Wednesday afternoon to answer questions about the impact of the new virus on people and communities in Canada, and throughout the world.

Inez Vystrcil-Spence of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation wondered if remote communities, like hers, are equipped to deal with it.

"We're hearing from emergency rooms, from systems, from governments [and] departments. They feel ready. But I am just in here to slip in a little note that are you ready for us? Are you ready for something to happen in a remote community?"

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Vystrcil-Spence recalled her time as incident commander during the H1N1 pandemic.

Remote northern communities were hit hard by that outbreak of respiratory illness 11 years ago, which Vystrcil-Spence attributed to jurisdictional issues over who has authority when it comes to First Nations.

Many nursing stations are understaffed, Vystrcil-Spence said on Wednesday afternoon.

Inez Vystrcil-Spence of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation speaks at the University of Manitoba panel on the potential impact of the virus in remote First Nations. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Community members are being advised to cough and sneeze into their elbow and wash their hands in First Nations that rely on "fragile" water systems or lack running water, she said. Supplies such as hand sanitizer take time to reach places that are accessible only by flight or winter road.

AMC working on a plan

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs will be gathering this week to address an emergency preparedness plan for First Nations in the province.

Its leadership is working with all levels of government to initiate plans in communities, and will provide more information in the upcoming days, according to a press release issued after Wednesday's panel.

"First Nations have an increased susceptibility to outbreaks due to social determinants of health, poverty factors and overcrowding housing conditions that make it easier to spread community-wide," Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said in the release.

Dr. John Embil is an infectious disease control specialist at Health Sciences Centre, who understands why people are worried about the new virus being introduced to their communities.

"We don't know what's coming at us and when it's coming at us, but we've got a number of protocols in place so that if we are faced with something … there are policies and practices in place," he said.

Dr. John Embil, who specialises in infectious disease control, stresses the need for basic practices to prevent the spread of germs. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Embil said health officials won't be caught off-guard. While similar infection control measures are still in place, hospitals are ramping up to prepare for the worst.

"What we're trying to do locally is reinforce basic approaches to keeping well and preventing the spread of germs as you would normally do."

Fear stokes discrimination

Case numbers are increasing in China and in Hubei, the Chinese province at the centre of the epidemic.

The number of cases of the new coronavirus has climbed to more than 24,600 worldwide, with close to 500 deaths. There have been five cases in Canada to date — three in Ontario and two in British Columbia.

A concern raised by the panel is that fear of the unknown could stoke discrimination here.

University of Manitoba dental hygiene student Juliet Yiduo Zhao says she is aware of some discriminatory treatment of Chinese people in Toronto, but has not heard of any incidents in Winnipeg. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Second-year dental hygiene student Juliet Yiduo Zhao was not aware of any incidents of discrimination in Winnipeg. She said she doesn't feel like she has been treated differently, and she hasn't heard about it from her friends in the city.

Through online forums she has heard of Chinese people in Toronto, for example, who are being blamed for its origin and spread.

"I just feel sorry for these people, and all the human beings who have to suffer," she said.

Manitoba's top public health official said the public must be on guard against divisive attitudes.

"We know that fear and stigma can often be a virus's greatest ally. So we need people to understand the real risks involved. And the proper steps involved to prevent it," said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer.

Low risk in Manitoba

Although the World Health Organization has declared a global health emergency over coronavirus, Roussin said people living in the province are at a low risk to get it.

Roussin discourages the general public from using of face masks, which are being sold out in some Winnipeg stores.

Masks are not typically necessary, he said, unless someone has a respiratory illness or works in health care.

Roussin is among Canadian health officials who are stressing they are prepared to deal with an outbreak in the country.

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin says Manitobans need to stand guard against discrimination fuelled by fear and misinformation. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

According to Prof. Kevin Coombs, a microbiologist in the University of Manitoba's infectious disease department, the biggest concern is that the virus is still new to everyone.

He said it could be a "flash in the pan" or the "tip of the iceberg," as the public health situation continues to evolve.

"To put all of this in context, in the amount of time that this particular event has occurred, about 100 times as many people have died from influenza," Coombs said.

"Even more have died from HIV or tuberculosis or malaria."

With files from Emily Brass and Kathleen Harris