Manitoba

Shamattawa chief frustrated as First Nation rapid response team leaves community amid COVID-19 outbreak

As a First Nations rapid response team pulls out of Shamattawa First Nation in northeastern Manitoba, the community’s chief says now isn’t the time to withdraw testing capacity from a reserve battling a growing COVID-19 outbreak.

Chief Eric Redhead says with less testing capacity, he's worried spread will go undetected

Shamattawa First Nation Chief Eric Redhead said widespread testing is a big part of the community's pandemic planning, and with the rapid response team gone, their capacity has dwindled. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

As a First Nations rapid response team pulls out of Shamattawa First Nation in northeastern Manitoba, the community's chief says now isn't the time to withdraw testing capacity from a reserve battling a growing COVID-19 outbreak.

Chief Eric Redhead said that team — a small group of nurses and doctors sent by the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Coordination Team — was helping the community test upwards of 70 people a day for the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Now, that number is closer to 15, he said.

Redhead said widespread testing is a big part of the community's pandemic planning, and he's frustrated that the First Nation's leadership will no longer be able to use that tool to get a sense of just how far the illness has spread.

As of Saturday, there were 370 known cases among the community's on-reserve population of 1,300. Redhead said he's worried that number is actually much higher, and that more asymptomatic cases will go undetected after the last rapid response team members left the fly-in community on Saturday.

"I really think that we need that snapshot. Testing is only one tool in the fight against COVID-19. But without that tool, we're not able to determine other things," Redhead said.

"We're not able to make good decisions or educated decisions on how we can recover [or] what our next step is without that snapshot."

The move comes about a week after the Canadian Armed Forces deployed about 60 soldiers to help the remote community deal with its COVID-19 outbreak. They're helping set up infrastructure for isolating and doing wellness checks, and will stay over the holidays — but they're not doing any testing, Redhead said.

"I mean, you get one resource and you lose another, right? And so we're not really able to get a step forward," he said.

Team returning Dec. 28: AMC

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, whose organization is part of the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Coordination Team, said the rapid response team is only meant to help in the initial stages of an outbreak.

"We've actually stayed well beyond our official time frame," Dumas said. "It's not a complete removal from the community. We still will help the leadership play their oversight role and help with their advocacy."

Dumas said nurses in Shamattawa have also been trained to do COVID-19 testing — but Redhead said they're understaffed and already have enough on their plates.

"It pulls them away from primary care … so people who are sick with other stuff aren't able to receive that same quality of care that they have before," he said.

"There's no balance, right, it's one or the other."

COVID-19 continues to spread in First Nations communities across the province. On Friday, Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba's acting deputy chief public health officer, said 54 of 63 First Nations in the province have now had cases of the illness.

Six communities are bearing the brunt of it, with a combined 827 active cases, Atwal said.

Dumas said the rapid response team will return to Shamattawa on Dec. 28, when the military is scheduled to leave.

Redhead said he's glad to hear it, but worries about what will happen in the meantime, as more people in the community show symptoms of the illness.

"We're seeing a rise in fevers and coughs and respiratory conditions … and we don't have a doctor in the community right now. The nursing station is understaffed," he said.

"I lose sleep over that, for sure."

With files from Erin Brohman

now