Sask. health officials praise co-operation in dealing with new COVID-19 spike in Hutterite colonies, regions

Communities are inviting health workers to come actively test for the virus, which helps account for the recent spike in cases, health officials say.

Communities inviting health workers to actively test for the virus helps account for spike: SHA

Co-operation from Hutterite colonies 'is going to go a long way for us to contain this outbreak,' Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone said Tuesday. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Saskatchewan health officials dealing with a significant spike in COVID-19 cases, including new cases in an unspecified number of Hutterite colonies, say they are being welcomed into communities after encountering some resistance during earlier efforts to contain the virus in two colonies last month.

This week, officials said previously reported infections in the province's southwest had stretched further into the region, and into west-central Saskatchewan. Eleven municipalities were cited as the sites of new infections.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, said dozens of those cases were specific to "communal living settings" and that the Hutterian Safety Council was helping Saskatchewan combat the recent spread.

On Tuesday, Shahab said the total number of cases within that spike was now at about 60 — about seven per cent of Saskatchewan's total of 876 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

Shahab said the new cases were due to "active case finding" made possible by a positive working environment in the affected communities.

"There's been good progress made in working with all communities to enable that," Shahab said. 

That stands in contrast to initial efforts to contain the virus when outbreaks were declared in mid-June in two Hutterite colonies inside the rural municipality of Maple Creek.

A joint letter issued by the safety council and the Saskatchewan Health Authority at the time of that outbreak noted resistance to testing among some colony members, as well as "challenges getting some Hutterite communities to implement adequate COVID-19 protocols and to abide by the public health orders."

Scott Livingstone, the health authority's chief executive officer, said Tuesday that no such difficulties are being encountered this time around. He said colonies have invited health officials into their communities.

"The big change was coming to them instead of having to bring everybody to us," which "has been one of the reasons why we're finding the cases which we need to know about," he said.

"Co-operation is going to go a long way for us to contain this outbreak, just like we did in the prior two colonies when we started to work with individuals."

Shahab said the Maple Creek outbreak is now down "to a very small number of active cases."

'No real linkages' to Alberta Hutterite funeral

Shahab said about 10 of the 60 cases were related to "sporadic events and contacts."

When the Maple Creek outbreak was declared last month, Saskatchewan health officials said they were investigating travel to Alberta as part of the outbreak. 

The minister of Spring Valley Hutterite Colony in southern Alberta told CBC News that Hutterite colonies from Saskatchewan had travelled to Alberta to support grieving families after the drowning deaths of three teens.

On Tuesday, Shahab said officials "have not found any real linkages to that event."

That same day, Alberta health officials said some of that province's new cases were linked to Saskatchewan Hutterite colonies. 

Asked whether lockdowns are in place in Saskatchewan colonies — as they were in the province's north, when an outbreak was declared in La Loche and area — Shahab said the context is different for each outbreak. Colonies average only about 100 residents each, he said.

"It's like an extended household," Shahab said of the context of some of the new cases. "It's a different environment. But if there is … transmission that is high, then obviously the interventions would have to be relevant for that context."

Resistance mostly 'subsided': leader

David Tschetter, a member of the Hutterian Safety Council based in Alberta, said the group realized early on that some colony members would believe their physical and social isolation provided protection from the virus.

"Of course, as a first medical responder, I totally disagree with that," Tschetter said. "We're not isolated and we're not medically insulated. This was one of the challenges to overcome in changing the mindset of our leadership."

Resistance to intervention efforts — partly fuelled by some members' fear about sharing medical information — has since "subsided" for the most part, Tschetter said. 

"We do impact the communities around us. Therefore it is in our best interests that we do work with public health authorities."

Colonies have modified their daily routines, such as offering pickup food service in place of communal meals, Tschetter said.

"It's difficult in [the] sense that we have preconceived ideas that we can go back … to that exact same specific routine as we had before in a very short time frame, like next week or maybe two weeks from now," he said. 

Tschetter said the safety council works closely with Dr. David Torr, the SHA's area lead for rural Saskatchewan, but that health officials do not even disclose to the safety council which specific colonies are hit with new COVID-19 cases.

Tschetter said the drownings in Alberta were a tragedy and that he could sympathize with people seeking to "socially, morally and spiritually support each other." 

"However, I do need to reiterate that we still need to be mindful of the risk potentially induced with that mass gathering," he said.

"Each and every person that was at the funeral has a responsibility to mitigate the risk further by self-isolating, and not expose their general community any more than they absolutely have to."


Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

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