Cree community on edge after COVID-19 outbreak at nearby hydro facilities

With 14 cases of COVID-19 confirmed at two Hydro-Quebec worksites in northern Quebec, some Cree officials are worried about possible spread to the nearby community of Chisasibi.

Hydro-Quebec says outbreak at LG-2 and LG-4 facilities under control, measures in place

More than 120 COVID-19 tests have been carried out among contacts of 14 Hydro-Quebec workers who tested positive at two separate facilities in northern Quebec, near the Cree community of Chisasbi. (CBC News/ Susan Bell)

An outbreak of COVID-19 at two Hydro-Quebec work sites in northern Quebec has some Cree officials worried about the vulnerability of the nearby community of Chisasibi.

Hydro-Quebec has now confirmed eight cases of COVID-19 in association with its Robert-Bourassa generating facility, also known as La Grande-2 (LG-2) complex and the nearby non-Cree town of Radisson, pop. 468, where some workers stay while on the job.

Last week, six cases were also confirmed in connection with another Hydro-Quebec installation known as La Grande-4 (LG-4), which is located more than 300 kilometres inland from Chisasibi along the Trans-Taiga road, which is used by many Cree to get to their traditional hunting territories.

Both LG-2 and Radisson are located less than an hour away from Chisasibi, the largest of the Cree communities with a population of more than 5,000 people.

It's too close for comfort.- Daisy House, Chisasibi Chief

"It's an outbreak…[eight] cases for such a small place. It's too close for comfort, " said Chisasibi Chief Daisy House, referring to the outbreak at LG-2. She added that she is very focused on maintaining good lines of communication with the public utility with regard to this outbreak and any others in the future. 

More than 120 tests on contacts

The utility said it has both situations under control and that it is confident the outbreak at LG-4 is over. 

At LG-2, a total of 73 on-site tests have been carried out in connection with the outbreak, as well as other tests done on workers who were already outside the territory, according to Hydro-Quebec spokesperson Francis Labbé. 

'There is only so much our health care system can handle. Two cases for us is an outbreak,' said Chisasibi Chief Daisy House. (Submitted by Daisy House)

The eighth and most recent case in connection with LG-2 was confirmed Wednesday morning. It involves a worker who was last at the site on Oct. 2, according to Labbé. 

Regarding the outbreak at LG-4, 51 on-site tests were done and no new cases have been identified at LG-4 in a week and half, according to Labbé, who added that most of the workers who tested positive were already self-isolating when they got their results.

"We are aware the Cree communities are concerned," he said, adding the utility is working very closely with the Cree Nation Government. 

Hydro-Quebec has put in place a series of safety measures, including limiting the workforce to essential workers, limiting outside contractors, requiring social distancing measures, mask-wearing, and extra cleaning of common spaces, among other measures, said Labbé. 

Some Cree workers asked to work remotely as precaution

Labbé also said that since mid-September, some 23 workers who live in the Cree communities have been assigned to work from home until further notice.

"That's the best way we identified to make sure those communities are protected," said Labbé. 

Three mining operations in the region have invested in on-site laboratories to be able to test workers before they return to Cree communities and confirm they are COVID-19-free. 

We are spread...all across Eeyou Istchee. ​​​​​​- Francis Labbé, Hydro-Quebec spokesperson

Labbé said a similar plan for Hydro-Quebec sites is likely not feasible. 

"A mining company has one site," said Labbé. "We are spread across [dozens] all across Eeyou Istchee." 

Since the outbreaks at LG-2 and LG-4, the community of Chisasibi has also moved a checkpoint to the intersection of the James Bay Highway and the community access road to monitor people who might be coming to and from Radisson. 

The Cree Nation Government and Cree Public Health have added Raddison to its list of "at-risk" locations, requiring anyone travelling there to isolate for 14 days when they return.

Chief Daisy House said the outbreaks are an important reminder how vulnerable her community is and how important it is for people to follow the measures and listen to the health authorities. 

"There is only so much our health care system can handle. Two cases for us is an outbreak," said House.