Eabametoong First Nation's 1st COVID-19 case spending his days drawing, worrying of further spread

Eabametoong band councillor Andrew Yesno was the community's first positive COVID-19 case — and the first in a northern Ontario First Nation. He says he likely contracted virus while in Thunder Bay for medical treatment.

Band councillor says he likely contracted virus while in Thunder Bay for medical treatment

Eabametoong First Nation band Coun. Andrew Yesno was his community's first COVID-19 case. He said he's more concerned about the impact on the community. (Submitted by Andrew Yesno)

Andrew Yesno was thawing a couple of geese he pulled from the freezer to pluck when the telephone rang inside his parents' house.

He washed his hands, picked up the phone and heard the voice of Eabemetoong's acting head nurse on the other end telling him his results were back and he was positive for COVID-19.

It was April 5, and Yesno was the community's first positive COVID-19 case — and the first in a northern Ontario First Nation. Yesno, a band councillor, had been in self-isolation since arriving back in the community on March 28 from a trip to Thunder Bay. 

"Her call was, 'It's going to be an initial shock, but have you been anywhere?'" said Yesno.

"They told me to stay put, that they would be there."

Yesno said the nurse asked him a number of questions over the telephone about his movements and places he stayed before his arrival in the community.

Yesno said another nurse then showed up outside the house and donned full protective equipment — mask, face shield, gloves and gown.

"There were people walking by and they were wondering what the heck was going on," said Yesno.

"That is how word kind of spread because people knew I was the only one in the house at the time." 

When the nurse entered the house she took his temperature, which Yesno said was 36 C, and checked the oxygen level in his blood, which was also fine.

"She said, 'I wished the news didn't come on a Sunday... We have to let you know,'" he said. 

Called family and friends

Yesno said he phoned his parents, who were in Thunder Bay for medical reasons, and contacted the band council. Two councillors then went on the local radio station that evening to announce the positive COVID-19 result. 

Yesno also phoned his younger brother, who, along with his girlfriend, had picked him up at the airport when he arrived. 

"I told him to call and get tested because I was in close proximity to you," he said.

Yesno said the nursing station told his brother that he and his girlfriend, who weren't exhibiting any symptoms, were at low risk of having been infected but they were tested last week and have been self-isolating.

He also contacted a friend in Thunder Bay he had stayed with during his time away from the community who has since tested negative for COVID-19.

Yesno said the only COVID-19 related symptoms he's experienced to date are some fatigue and a back ache. His only companion over the past two weeks in self-isolation has been his parents' dog, a Shih Tzu-mix named Zoey. 

Eabametoong First Nation Coun. Andrew Yesno has been posting his artwork in his windows. (Submitted by Andrew Yesno)

He's also been rediscovering art, waking up early, brewing coffee and drawing pieces he then tapes to the windows.   

"It's just to let people know I am doing OK," he said.

"It's not public that it is me, but most people in the community already know."

Yesno said he is also continuing his work as a band councillor.

Tested during nursing station visit

An unrelated ailment led to his being tested for the virus.

In the early morning hours of April 1, Yesno woke up with a swollen eye and a swollen lip. It was about 3 a.m. and, believing he was suffering from an allergic reaction, he went to the nursing station. 

There, a nurse gave him Benadryl, but while looking over his chart noticed he had a history of pneumonia. Yesno said she listened to his chest with a stethoscope and suggested he get tested for COVID-19.

"When she first saw me, she wasn't wearing a mask. [She said], 'After listening to your chest I should put on a mask … I think I'm going to consider taking a swab,'" said Yesno.

The nurse came back with protective covering and took his test.

"By sheer chance, if it wasn't for the allergic reaction, I would have never known," he said. 

Yesno said the nurse was flown out on a charter almost immediately after his positive result and was tested, but the result was negative.

Likely contracted virus in Thunder Bay

Yesno said he likely picked up the virus while he was in Thunder Bay for about two weeks. The Thunder Bay District Health Unit has still not been able to determine where he may have contracted it, he said.

Yesno said he spent five days in hospital to receive treatment for a blood infection, four days in two hotels and four days in a private residence.

Yesno said he was originally supposed to stay in hospital for 25 days, but believes he was discharged because the facility was freeing up beds in preparation to deal with a possible influx of COVID-19 cases.

Eabametoong First Nation band Coun. Andrew Yesno has been producing artwork during his time with COVID-19. (Submitted by Andrew Yesno)

The Thunder Bay Health Sciences Centre said in an emailed statement that no COVID-19 cases had yet been traced to the hospital and referred further questions to the district health unit. 

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit said in an emailed statement it would not comment on specifics about individual cases. The district health unit said that it partners with the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch — which is part of Indigenous Services Canada — and the Sioux Lookout First Nation Health Authority (SLFNHA) when dealing with COVID-19 cases that cross jurisdictional lines. 

The SLFNHA — which covers Eabametoong — did not return a request for comment. 

Contact tracing delayed

Eabametoong Chief Harvey Yesno has said that contact tracing on Andrew Yesno's case was delayed by at least 24 hours. 

Andrew Yesno said he knows firsthand that contact tracing was delayed. He said he personally got in touch with all the people he was in contact with during the 14 days prior to his arrival in Eabametoong.

"They had never been contacted themselves," he said. 

He said one of his contacts got in touch with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit before they got in touch with them. 

"We were led to believe the contact tracing was being done from Thunder Bay or from the nursing station here and what we found out is that none of it had been done," he said.

"It was left to our own emergency response team to conduct it."

Eabametoong First Nation band Coun. Andrew Yesno's artwork done during his time with COVID-19. (Submitted by Andrew Yesno)

Indigenous Services Canada denies contact tracing was delayed and has said that it began immediately on April 5 and that a total of 11 people were identified as possible contacts — five from Thunder Bay, three from Eabametoong, two from Webequie and one from Neskantaga.

Andrew Yesno said Eabametoong is doing what it can with limited supplies and support from the government to prepare for the possible spread of COVID-19 now that it's arrived. 

Eight COVID-19 tests were flown out by charter Saturday and six more tests were sent out Wednesday. No positive results other than Andrew Yesno's have yet been reported in Eabametoong.

The band council recently passed a resolution empowering the Nishnawbe Aski Police Service to enforce stay at home orders and 14-day quarantine requirements for people who return to the community, he said.

He said any fear he felt after learning his COVID-19 result was overwhelmed by what he felt for his community. As a band councillor, he said he has been concerned from the beginning about the infection arriving in his community. 

"There was a lot of panic in the community, a lot of people worried and scared that it had arrived here," he said.

"Being in an isolated community with overcrowded housing, it's a big issue, it wouldn't take much to spread like wildfire."


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him