As deconfinement looms, Cree communities begin asymptomatic testing for COVID-19

Since last week, the Cree health board in northern Quebec has added the ability to carry out 140 screening tests per week on vulnerable populations such as elders and those who aren't showing symptoms, but who have travelled from high risk regions such as Montreal and Ottawa.

Health board expands targets for testing to include elders, people without symptoms

Cree Elders staying in seniors homes or spending time in multi-service day centres in the communities are now able to get a COVID-19 screening test, even if they don't have symptoms of the virus. It is part an effort by the Cree health board to increase testing and add up to 140 asymptomatic screening tests each week. (Katherine Morrow/CBHSSJB)

The Cree health board in northern Quebec has increased the number of COVID-19 tests it does and expanded the list of who can be tested to include asymptomatic people and elders, among others. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) has done diagnostic tests on anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

But as of last week, the board added the ability to carry out an additional 140 screening tests per week on people who are asymptomatic, but who have travelled from an at-risk area or job, such as students returning from classes in places like Ottawa and Montreal or mine workers returning to the communities, among others.

Screening tests will also be prioritized within vulnerable populations, according to CBHSSJB chairperson Bella M. Petawabano. That includes people at elders homes and multi-service day centres, which is a network of facilities providing therapeutic programs and services to the elderly and adults with special needs in the Cree communities. Staff in those facilities will also be able to get regularly tested.

"We're just being careful that we prevent the spread of the virus," Petawabano said. 

If there's going to be an influx of people coming in...we want to protect our communities,"- Bella M. Petawabano, chairperson of the CBHSSJB

The added testing is needed, she added, as Quebec continues to ease the COVID-19 restrictions in place for more than two months and more businesses look to reopen. 

"If there's going to be an influx of people coming in — especially from the hotspots — we want to protect our communities," Petawabano said. 

Checkpoints are still in place limiting access to Eeyou Istchee, the name for the Cree territory in northern Quebec, and Premier François Legault has yet to announce a date when those checkpoints and others limiting access to nearby non-Indigenous towns in the region will be removed, but Petawabano says they know that day is coming.

"We want to be sure that we have all the necessary precautions in place," Petawabano said. 

CBHSSJB chairperson Bella M. Petawabano said it is important to add asymptomatic screening tests as the territory prepares to ease some COVID-19 restrictions. (CBHSSJB)

Right now there have been only 10 cases of COVID-19 in the Cree communities, all of them related to travel outside the territory. According to Cree leaders there is no community transmission of COVID-19 in the communities. 

Expanding the testing will allow Cree health officials to really confirm that, according to Colleen Fuller, a public health doctor who, among other responsibilities, leads the COVID-19 testing, contact-tracing and screening team for the CBHSSJB. 

"We've not seen any evidence of community transmission," Fuller said.

This is really to test for any hidden asymptomatic transmission that's going on at a community level.- Colleen Fuller, public health physician CBHSSJB

"This is really to test for any hidden asymptomatic transmission that's going on at a community level that hasn't come to light so far." 

Right now anyone travelling to a Cree community from an at-risk zone must self-isolate for at least 14 days. Fuller said it's important for people not to take a negative asymptomatic screening test as permission to stop self isolating. 

"It's possible they're negative today but tomorrow they could be [positive]," Fuller said.

Self-isolation strategy working 'very, very well' 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Cree health board has made accommodations available in each of the communities for anyone who needs to self-isolate, but who can't do that easily in their own home because they live with many other people. Food and cleaning supplies are made available to the person as well. 

"It's been working very, very well," Fuller said, adding that it's a key part of slowing the spread of the virus in Cree communities. 

"It's one thing to tell people what to do, but to enable them to do it is much more effective."