Thunder Bay

Neskantaga pandemic protocols helped stop spread of COVID-19, chief says

The chief of Neskantaga First Nation said Sunday that his community's pandemic plan worked to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after a contractor sent to help fix the First Nation's water supply tested positive for the virus. 

Leadership is still learning from the experience of having a contractor test positive, Chris Moonias said

Chris Moonias is the chief of Neskantaga First Nation. (Facebook.com)

The chief of Neskantaga First Nation said Sunday that his community's pandemic plan worked to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after a contractor sent to help fix the First Nation's water supply tested positive for the virus. 

The contractor was tested for COVID-19 upon entering the community on Nov. 10, in accordance with its pandemic protocols, Chief Chris Moonias said.

He left the community as soon as he tested positive, he added.

All 51 people currently still living in the community – which was evacuated in late October after an oily sheen appeared on the water in its reservoir – were subsequently tested for COVID-19, and all tests came back negative, Moonias said.

"I was scared," Moonias said of learning about the positive test result. "What happens if you're going to have an outbreak? You know, I was really worried. But at the same time, getting the results back, you know, the pandemic protocol works, you know? We have to just keep enforcing it."  

Neskantaga finalized its pandemic plan in late March, less than two weeks after major national and international events such as the Juno Awards began cancelling this year's editions to curb the spread of the virus. 

The community, which has been under a boil water advisory for more than 25 years, is an expert at dealing with crises, Moonias said at the time.

The plan called for screening individuals entering the community and using buildings such as the school and community centre to isolate people who can't be near others.    

Contractors are not allowed to have contact with community members nor stray from the vicinity of their living quarters or work site, Moonias said. 

Though the protocols appear to have halted the spread of the virus in the case of the contractor, he said they are still learning from the experience.

"We have to take a look at the pandemic plan and [put] new measures in place ... stricter access to the community, you know?  Having them tested before they go up there," Moonias said. "That was supposed to happen, so apparently there was a communication issue."

More than 200 residents of Neskantaga remain in Thunder Bay because of the evacuation, and Moonias said his pandemic team is trying to protect them from the city's rising case-count by imploring them to keep within their group, wash their hands and practice physical distancing. 

"The situation has brought them here, you know, during the pandemic, which is very scary for them, even myself," he said.

The latest estimate as to when community members might return home is Dec. 4, Moonias said, and they will continue to be under a boil water advisory when they return.

However, he has made a list of demands of the federal government that he wants to see acted upon before they return, he said. Those demands include access to a membrane filtration system to provide community members with clean drinking water, access to running water 24 hours a day, certified plumbing, needed repairs to homes, a feasibility study on replacing the community's water distribution system, and a probe of the contractors and consultants hired to — so far unsuccessfully — address the problems with the First Nation's water supply. 

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced Wednesday he is preparing to launch that investigation. 

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