Limiting gatherings to 10 people or less and immediate closures of schools and daycares are among the measures First Nations in northern Manitoba are being asked to take in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) announced the measures at a press conference Wednesday morning, alongside Dr. Barry Lavallee, medical adviser for MKO, and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin. The measures also include limiting community access to essential services only, and conducting virus testing at alternate sites to mitigate risk for health-care workers.
Lavallee stressed the importance of social distancing in First Nations communities, adding that the MKO’s approach to isolation, quarantine and support would be focused on families living under the same roof rather than individual people. If one or two people in a home are sick, he said, all family members would be asked to self-isolate together.
He also recommended that visitation to care homes be limited, that First Nations consider immediately controlling their borders to allow only essential travel in and out, and that communities review their own health workforce to suspend medical professionals over the age of 60 from seeing patients. Hunters and medicine keepers in northern Manitoba’s First Nations are being asked to help with preparations by stockpiling protein sources and medicines that can be used in both prevention and treatment, he added.
As Manitoba works to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, Settee noted that First Nations communities are more vulnerable to the virus and must take more extreme actions, in conjunction with both federal and provincial governments, to mitigate the effect on communities.
"COVID-19 will impact First Nations very differently from the rest of Canadian society because the social determinants that we live in, and the living conditions in the north, are very different," Settee said.
"Overcrowded homes are an (incubator) for infection to spread, it will spread fast and it will impact our First Nations very differently — that is why it is important that we as leadership provide the best support that we can in making sure that our people are safe."
Lavallee said he anticipates a reduction in health services as communities control their borders, but noted that alternate and indirect means of accessing care, like video conferencing, would be made available to those in need.
With respect to COVID-19 testing in communities, Lavallee asked that tests not be conducted in nursing stations, and instead deferred to alternate spaces like empty school buildings in order to reduce the risk for health-care workers.
Roussin repeated broad public health messaging about social distancing, including self-isolation for those who are sick, as well as appropriate handwashing and cough etiquette. He confirmed that testing kits are the same for COVID-19 as for other respiratory infections, including the flu, and are both accessible in northern communities and able to be transported to laboratories. Personal protective equipment (PPE) for health-care workers and sanitation supplies for households, however, are in short supply, Settee said.
Settee asked that governments provide the necessary resources for communities to enact their own pandemic plans.
"Our response will determine the impact of the virus in our First Nations, but the government's response will also determine the impact of COVID-19 in First Nations communities, and we are calling on the governments to provide all the necessary resources for our people to be adequately prepared," Settee said.
On Wednesday, the federal government announced an Indigenous community support fund to the tune of $305 million, though it’s unclear whether that funding would support pandemic plans, stimulate reserve businesses or simply accommodate the high cost of living in the north.
Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau said he wants the funding to start flowing next month, but wouldn’t specify examples of what that cash would be used for or how communities would be selected.
"There are groups of Canadians that are particularly vulnerable, and people that are in places that are far away from medical care; people who are in places where food security is a challenge are particularly impacted," Morneau told the Free Press.
"We don't know all the situations so far (and) we need to prepare ourselves for those eventualities."
Settee said he's received assurance that food prices in northern Manitoba would be frozen while stores respond to the pandemic.
"At this stage in time, I think that it is important that the government look at our First Nations people because we will not be marginalized, we will not be forgotten about during this crisis," Settee said.
As of Wednesday, Manitoba Health has reported 15 confirmed or presumptive cases of the virus, though none have been detected in northern First Nations. However, Lavallee advised not to take that for granted.
"While Dr. Roussin's team is monitoring the number of positive cases, we're wanting our communities to assume the virus is here now," said Lavallee.
— with files from Dylan Robertson
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.