Sagkeeng First Nation goes into lockdown with 1st COVID-19 case

A confirmed case of COVID-19 has put Sagkeeng First Nation into lockdown.

'It was inevitable that we would see cases in First Nations communities,' Sagkeeng chief says

Sagkeeng First Nation has reported its first case of COVID-19. (CBC)

A confirmed case of COVID-19 has put Sagkeeng First Nation into lockdown.

Chief Derrick Henderson said the First Nation's council was told Monday night that a member of the community, about 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, had tested positive.

The community health director's call began with the words, "This is probably not the call that you wanted to hear," Henderson said.

He immediately called an emergency meeting that included Sagkeeng's health team and pandemic planning team. They were joined over the phone by a representative from the federal First Nations and Inuit Health Branch.

"We were on the call for probably an hour or so discussing our next steps," Henderson said.

"They said it's probably a low risk, but you know what? Any risk — doesn't matter, low or high — you still have to put those measures in place, and that's exactly what we're doing."

Following the meeting, Henderson went on the community radio station to let everyone know what was happening, and also posted the information on Sagkeeng's Facebook page.

"It was inevitable that we would see cases in First Nations communities," the Facebook posting says. "Our goal is to quickly contain the spread of COVID-19 and limit it to small numbers of cases or clusters.

"We remind everyone that we need to continue to be vigilant about following effective public health measures to reduce and slow the spread of COVID-19."

Checkpoints to access the First Nation went up shortly afterward. The infected person went into isolation and is being monitored by health officials, Henderson said.

Anyone who was in touch with the individual is now being contacted and asked to self-isolate.

"We are prepared. All of our offices are going to be temporarily closed until we complete the contact tracing. Once we know the results of the testing, then we probably will loosen the restrictions," Henderson said.

"But right now it's a lockdown for our community, and I'm asking all [band] members who live outside the community to just stay at home."

Manitoba's first COVID-19 cases on a First Nation were identified late last week, with one at Fisher River Cree Nation and two at Peguis First Nation. Both communities are in the province's Interlake region.

Sagkeeng is on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, close to the community of Powerview-Pine Falls.

Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, says the appearance of the illness in First Nations communities was a reality local officials were ready for. 

"We knew that it was not if, but when," Dumas told CBC News on Tuesday. "I think it's quite remarkable that we've been able to go this long without our people being COVID-positive on reserve."

Dumas said he has been in contact with officials from the affected communities, and praised them for taking swift action to contain the spread of COVID-19.

He said it's important not to stigmatize anyone in the affected communities.

"If, unfortunately, one of our relatives gets sick or … one of our community members get sick, then we all need to rally together to try and help and protect that person and protect ourselves."  

Challenges specific to First Nations 

In addition to the four cases identified on-reserve, 39 First Nations people have tested positive for COVID-19 off-reserve, said Dr. Marcia Anderson, the vice-dean of Indigenous Health with the Rady Faculty of Health at the University of Manitoba. She said in each case, the individual self-identified as First Nations.

Keeping the virus contained is challenging everywhere, but there are some specific concerns for Indigenous people, she said. 

For one, most of the Indigenous people who have tested positive in Manitoba are older, between 60 to 69, which puts them at greater risk of having complications, she said. 

There is also the issue of shortages of housing on many First Nations, which can make it harder to physically distance and self-isolate, she said.

"COVID-19 spreads very efficiently in households through respiratory droplets. The ideal self isolation scenario is a private bedroom and a private bathroom," she said. 

"And so with the baseline housing shortages and rates of inadequate and overcrowded housing, that becomes really difficult in a lot of First Nations communities."

Because of this, it's really important that the communities' leadership works in conjunction with health officials so that people can go into self isolation if they can't do so at home safely, she said.

With files from Riley Laychuk