Thunder Bay

'Lives could be lost'; Chief of Eabametoong FN 'disappointed' in government response to COVID-19 case

The chief of Eabametoong First Nation, about 300 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, said he’s “disappointed” and “not happy” with the response from both the Ontario and federal governments after one of the 1600 people living in his community was confirmed Sunday as the first case of COVID-19 in a remote, isolated community in Ontario.

We're basically saying "Code Red" says chief

Harvey Yesno, chief of Eabametoong First Nation, Ont., says he is 'disappointed' in the response from both the federal and provincial government with respect to helping his community deal with a confirmed case of COVID-19. He says he's concerned that the virus may have already spread due to overcrowding in the community. (Dave McSporran/Bottled Media)

The chief of Eabametoong First Nation (EFN), about 300 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, said he's "disappointed" and "not happy" with the response from both the Ontario and federal governments after one of the 1600 people living in his community was confirmed Sunday as the first case of COVID-19 in a remote, isolated community in Ontario.

Chief Harvey Yesno told CBC News the individual, a man in his 40s, was able to self-isolate immediately upon his return to Eabametoong and is remaining on his own in a separate dwelling while his condition improves. 

"It is heartbreaking. It is horrific to know your community member is struggling against this virus, and the rest of the community is seriously at risk, " Yesno said in a written release late Monday.

Acting on the best available medical advice, Eabametoong, also known as Fort Hope, had been preparing for the possibility of a positive test result for weeks, including instituting travel restrictions on March 20. The community also developed a pandemic plan, declared a state of emergency, and issued a Community Protection and Emergency Response Order on April 1.
One person who has tested positive for COVID-19 in Eabametoong First Nation is staying alone in a dwelling in the community for at least 14 days. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

'We knew this was possible," stated Yesno. However, "you can have the best possible local plan in place, but if your health care partners and Federal and Provincial governments don't come to the table with real funding and real options to respond to this emergency at a broader scale, then you can't implement your plan."

'No plan' to help community deal with COVID-19

Yesno said that in a discussion with government officials on Sunday, he was "given assurances that something would happen on the ground on Monday," involving enhanced testing and potentially extra personnel.

But as of Tuesday "nothing is happening", he said, adding what is becoming clear to him is "there is no plan and there will never be one in event of COVID-19 penetrating a remote community."

The community currently has about 34 swabs for COVID-19 testing, 13 oxygen tanks, 271 N95 masks and 171 face shields at the nursing station, according to Yesno.

Eabametoong faces many challenges including substandard housing and a boil water advisory that has been in place for nearly two decades. Many people struggle with physical health issues, such as diabetes including three people who are on home dialysis, and mental health and addictions, including 174 people on suboxone.
Eabametoong First Nation is the first remote and isolated community in Canada to have a person test positive for COVID-19. (Chris Ensing / CBC)

He's worried the overcrowding, with six or more people living in each house, may have already caused the virus to spread.

'Code Red and we're taking worst case scenario'

"We're basically saying Code Red and we're taking the worst case scenario because right now we're thinking that if we ever have the COVID-19 penetration in our community and an outbreak happens we don't have the facilities" to handle it, he said.

On March 13, Eabametoong issued a news release outlining what was needed, possible options and calling on the highest levels of government to step in with assistance. 

"We have laid out recommendations and options and been met with commitments to assess or evaluate next steps… that is not adequate when lives are on the line," Yesno stated. "Immediate action and support are needed or lives could be lost."

Eabametoong is calling on provincial and federal authorities to provide:

  • New capacity for an army field hospital and care facility to allow 50-100+ community members to be safely isolated when diagnosed,
  • Testing kits, qualified personnel to administer them, and training for community staff to begin intensive testing and contact tracing work within the community
  • Resourcing to establish a safe testing site and avoid contaminating the Nursing Station
  • Personal protective equipment and supplies for health care staff and local crisis response workers
  • Increased local medical staff including nurses, doctors and monitoring options for community members who are not evacuated for critical care
  • Coordinated, regional support and resourcing for critical care patients who need to be evacuated to Sioux Lookout, Thunder Bay and other centres
  • Emergency assistance with implementing the local pandemic plan, including appropriate resourcing for vulnerable populations with mental health, addictions, trauma, and multiple existing medical complications 
  • Emergency support for food, supplies, counselling, communications, energy costs, and meeting household level needs as EFN increases community lockdown measures   

Federal government suggests military help possible

In an emailed statement Tuesday afternoon, a federal government official they are "actively working with the community to ensure the necessary resources are in place."

"We are in close coordination with Eabametoong's nurse-in-charge to ensure medical staff remains at full capacity and requests for additional staff are addressed," stated Vanessa Adams, the press secretary for the Minister of Indigenous Services Canada.

She said personal protective equipment,  including surgical and N-95 masks, gowns, gloves and face shields, arrived in the community on March 30, and that an additional shipment of material, including swabs, was sent to Eabametoong on Monday evening. 

"Regular checks on supply will continue to ensure the community has all the tools to respond the COVID-19 pandemic," said Adams. "We will continue to closely monitor the situation and work with the community to address surge capacity needs, including, but not limited to, use of military support."

$37M from Ontario to 'ensure health' of Indigenous people

The Ontario government announced Tuesday it is providing $37 million to support outbreak planning, prevention and mitigation efforts to ensure the health and well-being of Indigenous people and communities, particularly those in remote and far-northern regions.

The funding breaks down this way:

  • $16.4 million from the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs to provide emergency funds for food, household goods, critical supplies, transportation, and support and care, responsive services and supports for urban Indigenous people, self-isolation facilities in remote and northern communities, prevention and awareness efforts, and pandemic planning
  • $10 million from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services to support Indigenous communities and agencies in responding to the needs of vulnerable children, families and elders during the outbreak
  • $7.4 million from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to help social service providers, charities and non-profits delivering critical housing services to Indigenous people living off-reserve
  • $4 million from the Ministry of Transportation to ensure continued service to remote and northern airports, enabling essential goods and services to continue reaching isolated communities.

However,  it is unclear if any of the funding announced is directed toward test kits or protective equipment.