COVID-19 outbreak in La Loche, Sask., derails province's reopening plan in village

Premier Scott Moe said he's confident the plan to reopen segments of the economy elsewhere in the province (except for Lloydminster, where there's another outbreak) can proceed Monday.

Premier Scott Moe confident plan to open segments of economy can proceed elsewhere in province

The Saskatchewan Health Authority is sending out a broad call for help to health-care workers, asking them to redeploy to northwest communities. The call comes amid an outbreak of 29 COVID-19 cases in La Loche. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

The continuing COVID-19 outbreak in the far northern Saskatchewan village of La Loche — which claimed the province's sixth victim Wednesday — has forced the provincial government to put off plans to reopen parts of the economy on Monday in La Loche as well as in Lloydminster, where another outbreak has now emerged.

Premier Scott Moe also announced a host of new or expanded efforts to curb the spread of the virus in La Loche, which has a population of around 2,300 people. There have now been 38 cases reported in the community and 57 cases overall in the far north.

The vast majority of those cases are active, unlike in places like Saskatoon and Regina, where a small portion of reported cases remain active.

"I have asked that more extensive testing be done in La Loche and in the surrounding area," Moe said at a news conference, adding that the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) is in the process of deploying 50 to 100 more staff to the region to help with "aggressive surge testing and contact tracing."

Health workers asked to spend 1 month in north

On Tuesday, the SHA sent health-care workers a robocall asking them to consider working in the north for one month.

"This is a COVID-19 priority broadcast," stated a robocall sent to health authority workers on Tuesday. "Call if you are available to work between April 29 to May 29 in our northwest communities."

Registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, paramedics, respiratory therapists, environmental services and administrative staff are needed help with testing for the virus, assessing patients and conducting contact tracing, according to the call.

People with "similar skill sets" were also asked to respond. 

Listen to the call here:

SHA also sent workers an email titled "Staff Needed in the North West for Testing Support."

The health authority also appealed for help via email. (submitted)

Door-to-door testing planned 

Door-to-door testing will take place in La Loche within the next couple of days, and anyone in the area who wants to be tested will be tested, Moe said. 

The testing will also focus on staff and residents at the community's La Loche Health Centre, Moe said. At least five people at that centre have contracted virus.

Health officials confirmed that the sixth person in the province to die from the virus — a person in their 80s — was a resident of that health centre. They are the second person at that facility to die from complications of the virus. 

"Each and every death is a tragedy," Moe said. "It is doubly hard at this time that loved ones are not able to gather together to grieve as they normally would."

More personal protective equipment for health workers is also being sent to La Loche. 

Asked about further travel restrictions in the North, Moe said his government was on a call with leaders to discuss just that. 

Re-Open Saskatchewan to proceed elsewhere

Moe was asked if, in light of the outbreaks and signs that not everyone is respecting the public health orders current in place, he would reconsider enacting his Re-open Saskatchewan plan in the rest of province (aside from La Loche and Lloydminster) on May 4 as scheduled.

"Despite these these two isolated outbreaks, we're confident that by and large, Saskatchewan is doing very well," Moe said. "And I think when you compare our overall numbers to other provinces, that is the case.

"We have been able to flatten the curve, by and large, right across the province. So we're confident that we can do so in these two isolated outbreaks. We're working very hard to ensure that is the case."

Phase 1 of the reopening plan, set to begin Monday, will allow certain operation to resume, including:

  • Medical services including dentistry, optometry, physical therapy, opticians, podiatry, occupational therapy and chiropractic treatment. 
  • Facilities to accommodate low-risk outdoor activities, such as boating and fishing.
  • Online reservations for campgrounds, which are then to be opened on June 1. 
  • Golf courses will reopen with restrictions beginning May 15.

A call for co-operation

A chief in Saskatchewan's far north said people in the area need to co-operate with health workers trying to conduct contract tracing as part of the larger effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the province. 

Teddy Clark, chief of the Clearwater River Dene Nation, said contact tracing is helping but has been a challenge. His community has four confirmed cases to date and is located about six kilometres northwest of La Loche, the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak in the north.

"I know the health authority has been a bit frustrated with that due to the fact that a lot of people are not responding to the calls and stuff like that," said Clark. 

"The contact tracing works. It's just a matter of people co-operating and answering their phone calls and so they can be looked after or … so we can certain get a handle on things."

Chief thinks people may not be recognizing phone number

Clark said he's not sure why people are not answering the calls but thinks they could be scared that somebody will think they have COVID-19, or that they could be ignoring the calls because they don't recognize the number. 

He said the health authority has brought a new piece of testing equipment called a GeneXpert machine that will provide test results within about four hours. 

Previously those results could take at least four days to come back because tests had to be sent away to another part of the province for processing, Clark said.

He said he thinks some people may have continued to gather in groups around the time of the start of the outbreak. 

"People that are mobile and you know, not really practising safe distancing and still kind of gathering and whatnot and we're told that it's now moving from person to person within the community," said Clark, adding that fear about the virus is creating anxiety and stress among the residents. 

He said there are a lot of "unknowns" because some people who have the virus don't know where they got it from.

La Loche also asks people to answer phones

The Village of La Loche has also said health-care workers tasked with contact tracing were having a hard time reaching some people.

"[Dr. Rim Zayed, medical health officer for the region] is appealing to people to answer their phones," the village wrote on its Facebook page on April 25.

"Contact tracing is being slowed by the challenge of reaching people on their phones. If you get a call from a number you don't recognize, please answer it."

Details of La Loche outbreak

Earlier in the week, health officials said 29 of the far north cases known at the time were people living in or from La Loche. Many of the cases in La Loche were connected to an outbreak at a Fort McMurray oilsands camp in northern Alberta, they added. 

The province has since clarified that the 29 La Loche cases includes four people who are from La Loche but who tested positive in Saskatoon after staying at the Confederation Inn in the city.

To what extent the new La Loche cases announced Wednesday are connected to the oilsands was not immediately clear.

Asked if the Confederation Inn cases are also linked to Fort McMurray, SHA said Wednesday that contract tracing is still underway but, "as of right now, no clear link has been established to the cases of COVID-19 in La Loche (or the cases in Fort McMurray), other than the fact that most of the contacts hail from the community of La Loche."

Of the 29 La Loche cases, five are people at the community's La Loche Health Centre: two workers and three long-term care residents, SHA said Wednesday. 

A civilian RCMP member in La Loche has also tested positive for the virus, although it's not clear if that person is counted among the 29 La Loche cases reported by SHA.

No escalation at Regina care home

Health officials also gave an update on an assisted living facility affected by COVID-19 in a different part of the province.

In early April, the Ministry of Health reported that one worker at an Eden Care home in Regina had tested positive for COVID-19. Two weeks later came news of a second worker afflicted with the virus at the same care home.

There is more than one Eden Care home in Regina and health-care workers sometimes work between various facilities — although Saskatchewan stopped that practice recently. 

On Tuesday, the health ministry confirmed only one Eden Care facility in Regina was touched by COVID-19. 

"No patients or residents have tested positive," a spokesperson said. "However, we continue to actively monitor the situation.

"No one else at any Eden Care facility has tested positive beyond the two health-care workers initially reported."

Recovered Nutrien staff return to work

The care home isn't the only place in Saskatchewan showing signs of de-escalation.

Nutrien, the potash producing giant, confirmed in early April that three workers at an unspecified site tested positive for the virus. 

On Tuesday, the company said only one further employee — making for a total of four — has tested positive, and that was 25 days ago.

"The mandatory 14-day isolation period for each of them has ended and they've been cleared by Saskatchewan Health Authority to return to work. We continue to maintain our protocols and take all actions necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19," said Larry Long, Nutrien's senior vice president of potash operations.

The health and safety of our people and communities are our top priorities as Nutrien proudly remains open to continue our important work in agriculture and food production."

with files from Morgan Modjeski