'It was only a matter of time': Fort Liard residents react to COVID-19 cases

Residents of Fort Liard describe being worried, nervous and on-edge as the community starts its mandatory 14-day containment order on Monday.  

The community is under a 14-day containment order to limit COVID-19 spread

Fort Liard, N.W.T., is under a mandatory 14-day containment order to limit the spread of the three COVID-19 cases in the community. The N.W.T./B.C. border, pictured above, is 30 minutes outside of the community and is closed. (Ryan Dickie/Winter Hawk Studios)

Residents of Fort Liard describe being worried, nervous and on-edge as the community starts its mandatory 14-day containment order on Monday.  

The order bans all at-home gatherings of any size, forces schools and non-essential businesses to close and mandates masks in public places. 

Fifty people are currently isolating in the community of just over 500, but Dr. Kami Kandola said that number could change quickly.  

'I'm quite worried' 

Rose Betthale-Reid found out about the COVID-19 cases through a family member.

Many people in the hamlet are related, she said, so news travels fast.

She's worried about her siblings, who are all in their 70s, and her 98-year-old mother who is living in Fort Simpson's long-term care home. 

"I'm quite worried," Betthale-Reid said. "There's a lot of people that I care for."

The 67-year-old elder had a hard time understanding the government's containment order, she said, because the notices from the government were only in English. Betthale-Reid ended up calling her grandsons to help her translate the N.W.T.'s request. 

"What does containment mean? What does order mean?" she asked.

She said it's frustrating for Indigenous people who are fluent in their own language to try and understand what the government is saying when it's communicated only in English.

Betthale-Reid said the N.W.T. government and the Acho Dene Koe First Nation should make it a priority to distribute information in Dene languages for people like her who don't have access to the internet or who do not keep social media accounts.

Late Monday afternoon, Dehcho First Nations chief Gladys Norwegian posted a health advisory in Dene Zhatie on the First Nation's Facebook page.

'It was just a matter of time'

Ragu Kanagalingam, the principal of Echo Dene School, started hearing rumours about positive COVID-19 cases first thing Saturday morning — but didn't believe them at first. 

Then, he got a call from the local health department confirming what was being said around town. 

"We were all pretty nervous and on edge, but we tried to stay calm, stay positive," Kanagalingam told CBC. 

"It was just a matter of time ... but we are all prepared." 

"It was just a matter of time, but we are all prepared." - Ragu Kanagaligam, principal of Echo Dene School 

For the last 10 months, staff take the temperature of every student in the morning, use hand sanitizer throughout the day and put any students with symptoms in an isolated chamber while they wait for their parents to come pick them up.

The school, which works with roughly 120 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, issued a statement on Sunday that they will be closing down until further notice. The school is undergoing a deep clean on Monday.  

A welcome sign to Fort Liard, N.W.T. Residents are being asked to avoid non-essential travel and to stick to public health requirements during the 14-day containment order. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

However, school won't be interrupted for the students, Kanagalingam said, because staff are putting together learning packages for them to use at home. Parents will be able to pick them up on the road starting Tuesday morning. 

Teachers will make themselves available from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for students who have questions about the material. 

Kanagalingam said high school students will start remote learning. Although access to the internet poses a problem for some households in the community, Kanagalingam said they will be supplying students with turbo sticks to connect them to WiFi. 

Kanagalingam said they are hoping to re-open on Feb. 1, but that will depend on whether the situation is under control by then. 

"I just hope that everybody stays positive," he said. "If we continue to follow the CPHO's orders ... we'll get through this." 

Fort Liard First Nation advises members to get vaccinated 

Boyd Clarke, acting band manager for the Acho Dene Koe First Nation, found out about the COVID-19 cases late Friday night, and got further updates as the situation evolved over the weekend.

Clarke said the hamlet is taking the lead on the emergency response. The First Nation set aside $200,000 in emergency funds for the hamlet if they need any help. 

"We've made a commitment to help the municipality in anything they might require," Clarke said. 

Clarke said the hamlet has not taken them up on that money, noting the mayor and council have things under control. 

"[The vaccine] will help to reduce exposure and reduce any further transmission that may be in existence." - Boyd Clarke, acting band manager Acho Dene Koe First Nation 

Fort Liard Mayor Hillary Deneron refused an interview request Monday.

The First Nation will decide how to best help their members once they get more information from the N.W.T. government about the length of the containment order. 

Clarke reminded members to "remain calm" and to comply with the public health orders of washing hands, wearing masks and not travelling in and out of the community. 

The First Nation is also advising their members to get vaccinated.

There is a vaccination clinic coming to Fort Liard on Thursday, where it will be given to anyone over 18 who wants it. 

"[The vaccine] will help to reduce exposure and reduce any further transmission that may be in existence," Clarke said.

Any updates on the situation will be coordinated through the hamlet's emergency team, and will be re-posted on the First Nation's social media pages and broadcast over the hamlet's local radio station, Clarke said.  

He reminded residents to seek out trusted news sources or information bulletins from the N.W.T. government for the latest information.  

Closures in other communities

Other communities in the southern N.W.T. are taking preventative measures in response to the COVID-19 cases in Fort Liard.

The Town of Fort Smith announced it is closing the town hall and recreation centre in the short term. They will be evaluating the situation on a daily basis. 

Deninu K'ue First Nation in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., said in a statement they will be putting back up a roadside checkpoint to monitor everyone coming in and out of the community. The First Nation is discouraging all unnecessary travel. 

The N.W.T. government has not found any risk of exposure to anyone outside of Fort Liard.