OTTAWA — The Canadian military is sending medical personnel to northwest Manitoba this weekend, to help stem COVID-19 deaths during "a very alarming situation" at a First Nations personal care home.
"This is scary; it is a nightmare scenario for that community, as well as the growing infections in Opaskwayak and surrounding communities," Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Friday.
Opaskwayak Cree Nation Chief Christian Sinclair said late Friday he’s expecting two nurses and up to six medical support staff to arrive at his community, which is next to The Pas.
Hours earlier, a federal official told reporters OCN would likely get one nurse and one doctor. The military did not respond to a request for clarity Friday.
"We're very confident we'll be able to turn the corner here, with all the support that's coming in," Sinclair said in an interview.
Sinclair formally asked the military for help Wednesday, after all 28 residents at Rod McGillivary Care Home tested positive for COVID-19, as did 13 of the home's 48 workers.
With one-third of staff sick and others isolating, the chief feared multiple deaths, similar to outbreaks at Winnipeg’s Maples and Parkview care homes.
"We didn't want a repeat of what happened there, so we took every precaution on an emergency measure, and went into full lockdown," he said.
Sinclair said most of the residents have stabilized, but pointed to research that shows some people with COVID-19 get better a week into their infection but turn for the worse between days eight and 10.
For McGillivary residents, that aligns with this weekend.
The First Nation community of 3,400 recorded a second death Friday, a woman in her early 50s. Sinclair said 60 per cent of the reserve population has diabetes, a major risk factor for dying from COVID-19.
"This (pandemic) exposes the challenges we face as First Nations, across the country," he said.
This month, Ottawa allocated $2.3 million for OCN to deal with the outbreak, including for staffing, two shipments this week of protective gear, and isolating people from other reserves.
"We're ready to support in any way, including the use of the Armed Forces, as needed," Miller said, adding this applied for the other seven on-reserve care homes.
Valerie Gideon, a senior ISC bureaucrat overseeing health services, said the Manitoba government’s new rapid care-home training program at Red River College should help alleviate strain, including on reserves.
The Pas is welcoming people from multiple reserves whose medical services are limited to a nursing station, and lack places such as hockey rinks to isolate people from infected relatives.
Most of the 37 beds at the Wescana Inn are full, while OCN has prepared 100 isolation beds at its high school and veteran’s hall.
"If the military is here, imagine what is going to happen to our more-remote communities," said local MLA Amanda Lathlin.
Lathlin has taken part in the planning phone calls for the military deployment, and said the extra hands might help avoid overloading the local hospital and sending even more patients to Winnipeg’s intensive-care wards.
"In northern Manitoba, our health-care services have always been under-resourced," the NDP MLA said.
Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs welcomed the military deployment.
"It's never enough, but it's something — and it's actually a show of good faith that there is an effort (from Ottawa) to work with First Nations leadership," he said Friday.