COVID-19 in Sask: Northern leaders say 'drastic' action could occur if public health orders not followed

In an update on local radio on Friday, leaders outlined while many in the north are following the orders, some are still partying, still travelling in pairs for things like medical appointments, and noted there was one instance of a person lying to get through a checkpoint that has been set up as part of travel restrictions in the region.

Many following public health orders, but others are flouting rules

The sign welcoming people to the Northern Village of La Loche. Leaders in the north say drastic action may have to be taken unless more people start following public health orders, as they say some people are still trying to go around the restrictions. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Northern leaders say some in the region just aren't getting the message when it comes to respecting public health orders put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Officials say there are at least 80 cases in the far north, with 75 in the community of La Loche and five in the nearby community of the Clearwater River Dene Nation.

On Saturday, the province announced that the number of COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan has climbed to 421, as there were a total of six new cases recorded on Saturday.

However, that figure may climb higher, as the province left out eight presumed positives that have been recorded in the community of La Loche, but not confirmed by the Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory. Had those cases been included, the number of cases in the province would be pegged at 429 and 85 in the far north.

Of the new cases included in the update, four are in the North, one is in Saskatoon and one is in Regina. Of the province's 421 confirmed cases, only 113 are considered active with 302 cases — roughly 71 per cent — considered recovered. 

The majority of cases are related to travel, contacts or mass gatherings, but 39 cases have no known origin and 74 remain under investigation by local health authorities.

The number of people in hospital has climbed slightly from Friday into Saturday, increasing from 10 to 12, but the number of people receiving intensive care has dropped, from three to two. Six deaths have been reported as a result of the pandemic so far. 

On Friday, northern leaders pleaded with the public to stay home and respect the orders during a community update on La Loche radio station CHPN.

In the update, leaders said while many people in the north are following the orders, some are still partying, still travelling in pairs for things like medical appointments, and there was at least one instance of a person lying to get through a checkpoint that has been set up as part of travel restrictions in the region.

"I don't think people understand the extent or the seriousness of the COVID-19 virus in our community," said Leonard Montgrand, northern representative for the Metis-Nation Saskatchewan.

Case numbers will decide further restrictions

He was one of the leaders who participated in the update on Friday. He said if people don't start to heed the warnings that are in place, leadership in the area will have to take drastic action.

Leonard Montgrand is a northern representative with the Metis Nation - Saskatchewan. He said leaders in the north will have to take drastic action if more people don't start following Saskatchewan's public health orders. (CBC)

"Our numbers will dictate our next measures or next step and the seriousness of it will be dictated by the numbers," he said. "If they continue to increase we will have to take immediate and drastic actions. Things will definitely change."

Montgrand said northern leaders, including the Metis Nation-Saskatchewan, are working closely together to ensure some of the communities most vulnerable, like those living on the street or dealing with substance abuse, have the support they need. 

He noted however, due to the tight-knit and social nature of the region, he expects other communities in the north to start seeing case numbers grow. The province is already dealing with four outbreaks in the region including the outbreak in La Loche, as cases have also been recorded in Beauval, Prince Albert and Lloydminster.

Between the two regions, the north and far north, there have been 158 cases recorded, accounting for 38 per cent of the total cases in Saskatchewan. Montgrand said the north has been hit particularly hard, as leaders were anticipating the virus to come "straight from the south," through the communities of Beauval and Buffalo Narrows before hitting communities like La Loche.

But instead, the virus arrived in Saskatchewan's north from the west through Alberta, with health officials tracking some of the cases back to the Kearl Lake work camp, north of Fort McMurray. 

"It moved so quick," he said. "It's so hard to keep track of and we have so many trace calls out there that we can't keep up at times." 

Travel restrictions were put in place on April 24 and were tightened again on Thursday, with residents in the north being ordered to remain in their home communities. 

"We are asking people to stay at home, stay in their community, in particular in those communities in the northwest," Premier Scott Moe said earlier this week. "This is one area of Saskatchewan where if you can stay at home, not just in your community, but at home, we're asking you to do so. It works in controlling this virus."

Province concerned about virus spreading in north

A statement from the Ministry of Health said the spread of COVID-19 in Northern Saskatchewan is concerning. 

"It is important that all Saskatchewan people, including those residing in the north, continue to practice physical distancing, avoid large crowds, stay home if they are sick and frequently wash their hands." the statement said.

"The Government of Saskatchewan recognizes the unique challenges that northern communities are facing in fighting the spread of COVID-19 and is providing direct supports to northern communities and businesses to ensure the necessary resources are available."

The statement noted that all non-critical travel in and out of Northern Saskatchewan is restricted, except for those travelling to Stony Rapids and La Ronge. Northern residents have also been told to remain in their home communities and to practice physical distancing. 

"Exceptions are made only in cases where people are attending to critical items, like buying groceries or attending medical appointments," the statement said. "These orders are in place to prevent people from contracting COVID-19 and to keep Saskatchewan residents safe." 

The Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency has also established checkpoints to restrict travel in the region and has installed more signage in the north. Alongside the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, the RCMP are helping with enforcement. 

 "Tickets in the amount of $2000 can be issued to people who are not willing to comply with the order," the statement explained. "While current Public Health Orders are in place, people may also report situations where an individual or business is suspected of being in non-compliance." 

The Saskatchewan Health Authority declined an interview. However, a statement from the SHA said it supports Northern leaders' call for people to follow public health orders. 

"SHA's area leads certainly agree with community leaders that it is important for all residents to comply with public health orders, and would encourage everyone to help keep their family, friends, neighbours and community safe," the statement said.

Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone said went there proved to be extra doses available, the decision was made to inoculate some but not all of the independent living residents than than waste those vaccine doses. (CBC)

In a news release on May 1, Scott Livingstone, CEO of the SHA said more healthcare resources, including additional staff, are being dispatched to the area to support ramped up testing and contact tracing in the region. 

"We have had over 100 staff express interest in supporting the response," said Livingstone in the release. 

"Together, we are demonstrating our power as a single health authority by pulling from health care workers across Saskatchewan to support the people in La Loche and area in their time of need."

'Community's survival' depends on everyone being responsible: Doctor

Dr. Anne Huang, a former deputy medical health officer in Saskatchewan, says now is a good time to start having conversations around reopening the province, but said it's important for government to make clear to residents what could result in restrictions being re-tightened. (CBC News)

Dr. Anne Huang, a former deputy health officer in Saskatchewan, said it's critical for people in the north to be following the instructions, noting if they don't COVID-19 will spread through the close-knit region like "wildfire." 

"It does make it harder," she said. Adding later: "Oftentimes the tight-knit community gives you the support you need, at the same time, it also means a lot more social interaction and more importantly, a lot more physical interactions."

Huang said as a result, everyone in the north — young and old, healthy or not —  have to follow the restrictions that are in place, as it can spread rapidly in close quarters through shared surfaces or contacts. 

"It's not just the elderly who get sick. Younger people could get sick and die from it as well,"she said. "Your people and your community's survival depends on everyone acting responsibly right now." 

As of Saturday afternoon, the province has conducted 30,845 COVID-19 tests.