Thunder Bay

Test positivity rate tops 50% over 2 days in Bearskin Lake as First Nation in Ontario in emergency state

Over 10 per cent of a remote First Nation's population in northwestern Ontario has tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the community of fewer than 400 people to declare a state of emergency and go into lockdown.

First Nation in province's northwest requests additional medical, emergency support

Bearskin Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario declared a state of emergency Wednesday after dozens of people tested positive for COVID-19. (The Canadian Press)

A fly-in First Nation in northwestern Ontario has declared a state of emergency and gone into lockdown due to a rapidly rising number of cases of COVID-19.

The state of emergency in Bearskin Lake First Nation, where fewer than 400 people live on reserve some 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, was declared Wednesday.

Only essential travel is allowed, and all community members are required to remain in their homes and only leave for supplies and groceries.

"It's very stressful. It's a lot of anxiety, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of fear," Charles Fox told CBC News in a phone interview late Thursday afternoon.

Fox is a former Nishnawbe Aski Nation grand chief and Ontario regional chief. As a Bearskin Lake band member, he's helping the First Nation's response to the virus.

Over 10 per cent of the community's population has already tested positive, with more than 50 cases affecting over two dozen households.

A state of emergency was declared Wednesday in Bearskin Lake First Nation, where fewer than 400 people live on reserve, more than 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. (CBC News)

"Babies are testing positive. Elders are testing positive. Your core front-line support and essential workers are testing positive," Fox said. 

"When you have that, it renders the community almost helpless."

Community members asked to isolate

Fox said several people who perform essential work in Bearskin Lake have tested positive, including community leaders and already limited health-care workers.

Others who've tested negative are now stepping in to help, forming lists of households that require food, water, chopped wood and common cold medication.

Fox said resources are severely strained and community members are doing what they can to meet the daily needs of the First Nation.

Charles Fox, a former Nishnawbe Aski Nation grand chief and former Ontario regional chief, is helping Bearskin Lake First Nation with its response to COVID-19. (Charles Fox/Twitter)

"That's the challenge that the leadership has, and they're doing the best they can to cope with that and come up with answers," he added.

As of Thursday night, Fox said there have not been any community members who have required hospitalization, but they're also looking at what steps should be taken if it comes to that.

"Which urban centres will be able to accommodate the needs for hospitalization?" He asked. "We all know the strain that the hospitals in municipalities and urban centres are currently facing."

Nurses 'feeling the strain' 

All those who have tested positive for COVID-19 are isolating in their homes until further notice, but the demand for tests and results is growing.

As of Thursday, there were only two nurses in the First Nation. According to the emergency declaration, "they are feeling the strain of conducting the number of COVID-19 tests and they are in immediate need of extra nursing support to continue providing care within the community."

Dr. Lloyd Douglas, the top public health physician for the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, told CBC News on Thursday evening that health-care workers have been working round the clock as part of the investigation.

Bearskin Lake is part of the community point-of-care testing program, which means it has one PCR device in the community that is able to process four test swabs every couple hours, Douglas said.

"We are working to get additional health-care providers in the community," he added.

Dr. Lloyd Douglas, the public health physician and incident commander for the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority COVID-19 response team, says health-care staff are working round the clock. (Northern Ontario School of Medicine)

That work was showing results, with four additional nurses being sent to Bearskin Lake on Thursday and Friday.

Indigenous Services Canada was also sending a rapid response testing team to the First Nation on Thursday night, Douglas said, bringing with them another mobile PCR testing device.

"Having this capacity at the community level in terms of additional health-care providers — who will be doing contact tracing, they will be taking swabs, they will be processing the samples — is going to be very helpful."

The First Nation is also requesting additional supports from the federal government or "from other agencies," including personal protective equipment (PPE) co-ordination and supplies, financial resources to pay for those supplies, and more human resources and emergency support services in the coming days and weeks, according to the emergency declaration.

The test positivity rate over the past two days in Bearskin Lake is over 50 per cent, Douglas said.

With a growing number of swabs waiting to be processed, and even more community members yet to get tested, First Nations and medical leaders are warning the worst may still be around the corner.