'The house is on fire, we gotta put it out': Dene Nation imploring N.W.T. residents to get vaccinated

As the Sahtu region grapples with a COVID-19 outbreak, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya is calling for people to get vaccinated as communities are "fighting for their survival."

Chief says communities are running out of houses to isolate residents affected by COVID-19

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya held a news conference on Thursday to talk about how the COVID-19 outbreak in the Sahtu region is affecting his people. (Randall Mackenzie/CBC)

As the N.W.T.'s Sahtu region grapples with the rapid spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 in communities with few health-care resources, the vaccine is a promising way out of this crisis, says Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya.

"We are basically fighting for our survival," said Yakeleya in a virtual news conference Thursday.

He said there are people who think they are immune to COVID-19 or that "it's not going to come into my community or my home, that I can continue to not be vaccinated."

"We know now that COVID-19 is real, it's deadly, it's a super spreader," he said. "As national chief, this is something that is really important right now is to get people vaccinated. Because it's working."

If these numbers still increase, we're going to be running out of houses for self-isolation.- Norman Yakeleya, Dene Nation chief

On Thursday in Colville Lake,  community members segmented into two groups — those who've tested positive for COVID-19, and those who have tested negative — to get their vaccines at different times. 

Nurse practitioner Anna Bergen ran the vaccine clinic. She told CBC News the turnout was "better than expected."

As of Thursday evening, the office of the chief public health officer reported 78 cases of COVID-19 in Fort Good Hope, 55 in Colville Lake, seven in Délınę, one in Inuvik and 19 in Yellowknife.

"We need people in the households to say this is real, in our community the house is on fire. We gotta put it out," Yakeleya said. 

'It's smart to get the vaccine'

David Codzi, president of the Ayoni Keh Land Corporation in Colville Lake, told CBC his household got double vaccinated, but some family members still caught COVID-19. He says their symptoms have been mild. 

He said he's taking major precautions and sanitizing constantly, but said the best precaution is the vaccine. He was one of the first people in the N.W.T. to get the first shot.  

Codzi says getting fully vaccinated protected his family from more severe symptoms of COVID-19. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

"I think it's smart to get [the vaccine] considering what's happening now.

"Instead of going through Facebook and reading all that crap that's there," he said, he looked at reliable information. 

"I just did it and took my shots."

Codzi said he's pleased that community members went out to Thursday's vaccine clinic in Colville Lake; with an estimated population of 151 people, around a third of the community has COVID-19.

Codzi said now, people who are suffering with COVID-19 would like information, such as remedies to help them weather the illness.

Few places to isolate, internet overages racking up

Codzi said many community members have already gone over their internet caps and that Northwestel can do its part by waiving overages during the outbreak — helping people isolate is part of the "social contract," he said. 

A spokesperson for the company did not say if it would waive overages.

In an email, they wrote that Northwestel introduced permanent increases to monthly data limits in each Northern community. In Colville Lake they increased available monthly data by 33 per cent, "which is what the existing satellite technology allows us to do." 

Yakeleya said other "disparities" are straining the communities, such as overcrowded housing, which leaves few places for people who test negative for COVID-19 to stay. 

This has left some residents unhoused, he said.

"If these numbers still increase, we're going to be running out of houses for self-isolation," Yakeleya said.

He said the Dene Nation is stepping up its rapid response team as it's had to do in other recent crises, like the Dehcho flood. It's running a meals-on-wheels program for elders and those who are isolating.

Yakeleya encouraged people who can to go out on the land and carry out the fall hunt, if possible, while prioritizing health and safety.

The Department of Health and Social Services said in an email, there are a few instances where going out on the land during the outbreak is not advised: 

  • Don't go out on land if you have COVID-19.

  • Don't go out on land if there are any signs you may be sick.

  • Don't go out on land if you have been told that you've been exposed to COVID-19.

  • When out on the land, make sure you can get back safely and quickly if you do get sick.