Thunder Bay

At least 2 remote First Nations in Ontario implement travel restrictions amid Omicron variant concerns

At least two remote First Nations in northern Ontario have taken steps to prevent non-essential travel and protect communities from the emerging COVID-19 Omicron threat. It's a move that the region's top public health physician hopes will be replicated across the region.

Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority recommends suite of new pandemic measures

In response to the growing threat posed by the COVID-19 Omicron variant, at least two remote First Nations in northern Ontario have implemented travel restrictions, with others likely to follow. (Supplied by the Office of the Solicitor General)

At least two remote First Nations in northern Ontario have taken steps to prevent non-essential travel and protect their communities from the emerging Omicron threat.

It's a move the region's top public health physician hopes will be replicated across the region.

"We believe that we will be impacted by this new variant of concern, and we're making the preparations for that," said Dr. Lloyd Douglas.

At an emergency meeting of chiefs that was held last week, Douglas warned that infections due to the Omicron variant may overwhelm public health capacity with case and contact management, and he issued a lengthy list of recommendations to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the First Nations.

Those recommendations include:

  • Restrict travel to and from First Nations, including avoidance of all non-essential travel.
  • Test everyone arriving in community on days one and seven.
  • Require seven-day quarantine for everyone, except those who have received a third dose/booster.
  • Ramp up vaccinations, with an emphasis on the importance of the booster shot.
  • Limit gathering size to 10 fully vaccinated people.

Concerns about limited infrastructure

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug was the first to restrict travel, doing so on Dec. 13. Community members are allowed to travel to smaller communities in the area, like Sioux Lookout, Dryden and Kenora. But non-essential travel further than that, for example to larger urban centres like Winnipeg or Thunder Bay, is restricted.

Essential trips, like for medical appointments, are still allowed, but anyone coming back must isolate for seven days and receive two negative tests. Essential workers like nurses, police officers and contractors are under additional COVID-19 protocols.

Donny Morris, chief of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, said the travel restrictions are likely just the first step in the First Nation's response to the new Omicron variant. (Youtube)

Chief Donny Morris said although they don't currently have any cases of COVID-19, the First Nation is operating under the assumption that Omicron is already present in the community.

"We're told it's like a wall, you're going up against a wall, and this thing is just climbing."

Neskantaga's restrictions kicked in Monday and are even stricter. 

It isn't allowing any non-essential travel in or out of the fly-in community, and anyone coming into the First Nation and who is not fully vaccinated must isolate for 14 days.

Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias says he's worried about the potential impact the Omicron variant could have on community members. (CBC)

"We hear it's very contagious and that's really concerning for all of us," Chief Wayne Moonias told CBC News. "We have to put something in place because we have a lot of vulnerable populations."

The concern is even higher in Neskantaga, Moonias said, because of the compounding crises affecting the First Nation. The First Nation has been under a state of emergency since 2013 because of a suicide crisis and high rates of substance use, and has been under a boil-water advisory for nearly 27 years.

Moonias said they also have just one isolation unit in Neskantaga, as the First Nation faces overcrowding and a shortage of nearly 100 homes.

If people have to isolate when they come back from an essential medical appointment, Moonias said, they will likely have to isolate at home with their families. Many houses have anywhere from six to a dozen people living in them.

Signs calling for help to address the longstanding boil-water advisory are posted outside the airport in Neskantaga. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

"It's very scary and a very concerning time for our community," he said.

"I honestly cannot tell you how we're going to deal with the issue if our community is hit with this new variant, because it's going to be massive."

The chief has called on the provincial and federal governments to provide additional support for remote First Nations to protect against Omicron spread.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson with Indigenous Services Canada said they are supporting First Nations by identifying "surge health infrastructure needs," which includes expanding spaces and capacity for pre-screening and for isolation.

The statement added that as of December 2021, the federal ministry has funded 518 "mobile structures" that can be sent to communities when they are urgently needed to bring ongoing COVID-19 transmission under control.

The spokesperson said 76 of the mobile structures have been already deployed. They've also "initiated 97 hotel or space rentals" across Canada.

Health authority focuses on vaccinations

Dr. Lloyd Douglas, public health physician with Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, said the lack of isolation units in some communities demonstrates yet again how First Nations are under-resourced.

"We are advocating to the government to whatever resources they have to alleviate a little bit of this crisis," Douglas said.

He said the health authority continues to prioritize the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to the communities. While a number of First Nations have high double-dose vaccination rates — in the range of 80 to 95 per cent of eligible people — there are others whose vaccination rates are hovering around 50 per cent.

Dr. Lloyd Douglas, public health physician and incident commander for the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority COVID-19 response team, says the lack of isolation units in some communities demonstrates how First Nations are under-resourced. (Northern Ontario School of Medicine)

"It's an ongoing conversation with the leadership and thankfully we see that some individuals, they are, you know, tapping into that trust that we're trying to build," Douglas said. 

"Some of those communities that are around the 40 per cent [vaccination rate], they were at less than 20 per cent weeks ago."

In the days and weeks ahead, Douglas expects other First Nations to begin implementing additional restrictions.

"If we put those measures in place that we have outlined, I believe that it can mitigate the impact somewhat as this threat passes over us."