Thunder Bay

As Ontario lifts COVID-19 restrictions, northern First Nations are still grappling with Omicron surge

Ontario is lifting more COVID-19 restrictions as over 30 communities in the province's north are still managing an Omicron surge, a discrepancy that's led to calls for better representation in reopening plans.

Differences between reopening realities for north and south result in calls for better representation

Neskantaga First Nation supported neighbouring Eabametoong First Nation with resources on Saturday as the remote community faces a COVID-19 outbreak. Ontario is lifting more pandemic restrictions even as dozens of First Nations are still grappling with the Omicron variant. (Neskantaga First Nation/Twitter)

As Ontario lifts more COVID-19 restrictions, First Nations in the province's north are still grappling with the Omicron surge.

Chiefs from several northern communities were briefed Wednesday about the COVID-19 situation, and the Sioux Lookout First Nation Health Authority outlined the difference in northern data about the virus compared to the south.

"While things elsewhere in the province are maybe moving ahead and have all the resources at their disposal. First Nations in this region again do not have access to all the infrastructure that someone else down south might have access to," said Dr. Lloyd Douglas, the top public health physician for the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA).

Douglas told CBC News the provincewide easing of many restrictions is missing the context of what's happening in northern areas.

He said not only is a historic lack of resources a concern at this stage in the pandemic, but the north is also weeks behind the rest of the province when it comes to test positivity rates and hospitalizations.

The health authority is seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases in the region Eabametoong and Mishkeegogamang First Nations in outbreak, while Pikangikum is just starting to see a decline in spread of the virus.

This comes on the heels of another large-scale outbreak that crippled Bearskin Lake First Nation through parts of December and January, outlining a need for faster government response in these situations.

More equal COVID-19 consultation needed: specialist

Across the province, effective today (Thursday), all capacity limits are lifted for restaurants, bars, cinemas and gyms — a move that was initially set to take effect Feb 21. 

The government also intends to fully lift capacity limits on businesses and social gatherings on March 1. Its vaccine certificate policy — which requires that certain businesses only admit vaccinated patrons — is set to end the same day.

Leading up to easing of restrictions, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, and Premier Doug Ford have pointed to improving virus indicators such as dropping hospitalizations and intensive-care admissions as the rationale behind lifting more public health rules.

Ford said Tuesday It's time to move on from public health restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 because people are "done" with rules like vaccine certificates and masks.

Earlier in the week, Moore said "we have the level of protection we need to remove public health restrictions," but that might not be the case for the entire province.

Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist and founder of the Indigenous Health Conference, said the province has not fully consulted with people on the ground in remote First Nations. 

Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist and founder of the Indigenous Health Conference, says the province has not fully consulted with people on the ground in remote First Nations when it comes to COVID-19 issues. (CBC)

"That's a better way to go then just letting it go and and letting whatever happens in the north happen without measures to mitigate that," Banerji said.

She said the risks for having COVID-19 unleashed into remote communities is more consequential than in the southern part of the province. She pointed to a number of factors that can worsen the situation, such as overcrowding in homes, and a lack of surge capacity and health-care infrastructure.

"So there's a lot of things to consider before you say, 'OK, we don't need to have any restrictions, especially vaccine mandates' ... As soon as you lift that, and if that is lifted in many northern communities, COVID will surge very quickly, and that's not what we want when some of these communities are much more vulnerable," she said.

Much of the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority area is also behind provincial vaccination targets, but Douglas said testing capacity and access to antiviral medications are in a good place.

Call for north 'voice' at scientific table

The discrepancies between what's happening in different parts of the province shows it's time for more representation from the north at the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, added Banerji.

"I think that's really a gap. And so, having a voice at the scientific table saying, 'Wait a second. You know, when you say all of Ontario is going in this direction. What about these remote communities?' because the situation is very different and there really hasn't been a voice there," she said.

Sol Mamakwa,Ontario NDP MPP for the riding of Kiiwetinoong, echoes the concerns for northern Ontario as COVID-19 case counts climb. He said having representation from northern communities in the form of a separate chief medical officer of health is a crucial step toward having a strong public health system. 

"Sometimes, we're not treated as part of Ontario, as citizens of Ontario. And I think it's really important to put the uniqueness of First Nations when we speak about having a medical officer," he said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ontario's Science Table said it did not have geographic representation as its main mandate when it was organized under emergency conditions in the summer of 2020. It was designed "to prioritize scientific rather than geographic representation," and represent a range of biomedical disciplines.

Those disciplines include mental health, and the table's current working group in that area is led by Professor Chris Mushquash, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Health and Addictions at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.

The science table said it has learned COVID-19  works very differently in different populations and regions and it has been separating regional data in modelling.

"That should better equip people in northern public health units to understand the distinct nature of COVID-19 in their regions and help them advocate for northern-informed policies from the provincial government," reads an emailed statement from Robert Steiner, the communication director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

"There's much left to be done in all of these areas, of course," the email reads.

CBC News has also reached out to the Ministry of Health but was awaiting responses at the time of publication.