Don't blame family who held funeral linked to new northern Sask. outbreak, chief says

Clearwater River Dene Nation has brought back a checkstop after officials reported a recent wake and funeral is now linked to more than a dozen new COVID-19 cases.

Checkstop brought back on First Nation as more than a dozen COVID-19 cases now linked to wake and funeral

Aerial view of the village of La Loche, Sask. Clearwater River Dene Nation is located nearby. (Submitted by Kalvin Jones)

Clearwater River Dene Nation has brought back its checkstop as the region faces a new COVID-19 outbreak linked to a recent funeral and wake. 

Leaders are also calling on community members to stop blaming the grieving family. 

"The family has already gone through a lot of hardship. It is nobody's fault. All we can do is move forward," Clearwater River Dene Nation Chief Teddy Clarke said last week on an official Facebook page where leaders give daily updates and remarks on the fight against COVID-19.

On June 11, health officials announced two people who went to a June 10 wake and June 11 funeral on the reserve tested positive for the coronavirus "after developing symptoms." By Monday, 14 cases had been linked to the funeral and wake. 

More than 10 people attended, going against the current rules imposed by local leaders in La Loche and the nearby reserve, officials said. 

"Not a lot of safety measures like masks, social distancing and hand sanitizing were enforced," Clake said of the gathering. 

Dr. Rim Zayed, the Saskatchewan Health Authority's northern medical health officer, called the new cases "unacceptable." 

"I know that gathering is very important … but we can't put the lives of our loved ones at risk," Zayed said on June 11.

The next day, Zayed joined Clarke in his call for compassion.

"We should act mature in our reactions. We shouldn't be blaming. We should focus on what is helpful for us and not stigmatize anyone," Zayed said. 

Before the outbreak, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the region had slowed. On June 10, La Loche and the reserve had only a combined five active cases. By Monday, the number had grown to 25.

Anyone who attended the wake or funeral has been asked to self-isolate for 14 days and self-monitor for symptoms of the virus. 

Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab speaks at the daily COVID-19 news conference on Tuesday. (CBC)

Asked about the event on Tuesday, Premier Scott Moe said contact tracing is underway in an effort to quickly contain the outbreak.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, said that recovery could take two to four weeks.

"We just need to support individuals and communities who are in that," Shahab said.

Bingos cancelled, checkpoint re-established

When the first two positive cases were announced last week, Clarke said the reserve's checkpoint would be re-established for two weeks 

"Residents are asked to stay home regardless if you show symptoms," he said.

By the next day, Clarke was already noting community pushback.

"I know people are not too happy that [we] had to lock things down, but we had to contain this outbreak," he said.

Clarke soon clarified that residents from the reserve could leave once per day, while people living in nearby La Loche could come into the reserve once a day.

People should still expect to be questioned at the checkpoint about their health, Clarke said. 

"We've also put in security on the reserve to watch that people are isolating and to monitor large gatherings like at the reserve beach," Clarke added. 

Robert St. Pierre, the mayor of La Loche, said bingos were postponed due to the close links between the communities.

"What happens in Clearwater also affects La Loche," St. Pierre said. 

Community had hoped to enter Phase 3 

The original outbreak in La Loche and the reserve — linked to interprovincial travel from Alberta — caused the two northwestern communities to initially be cut out of the province's reopening plan.

It also resulted in a broad northern travel ban that has since been lifted for all parts of Saskatchewan's north, although some communities, including Clearwater River Dene Nation, still have checkstops. 

While the rest of the province is now in Phase 3 of the reopening plan, La Loche and the reserve remain in Phases 1 and 2. That means no gatherings of more than 10 people inside or more than 20 people outside.

People are also strongly encouraged to keep their distance and wear a mask.

Before the more recent outbreak, officials said they were hopeful the communities could enter Phase 3 soon.

It's unclear whether the recent escalation in cases has delayed that plan. Clarke and St. Pierre were unavailable for comment Tuesday. 

On the same day the wake and funeral were flagged, health officials announced that the rules for funerals and wakes elsewhere in the province would be relaxed so that a maximum of 150 people could attend. 

The province's next COVID-19 news conference is slated for Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. CST.