New COVID-19 infections continue to surge in northern Manitoba, with more than half of the cases reported Thursday stemming from the region.
Of the 198 new cases logged across the province, 105 were reported in the Northern Health region.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee said access to rapid testing needs to be readily available in all local First Nations, including the 26 northern communities represented by MKO, to better respond to the virus surge.
"We are disappointed to see ongoing high rates of COVID-19 in First Nations in Manitoba," Settee said in a statement to the Free Press. "We are worried about the lives of our family and community members. We are grieving from the ongoing losses of our elders.
"We are especially alarmed to see the numbers of COVID-19 cases in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities across northern Manitoba surpass Winnipeg."
A Free Press analysis showed, of the new cases, 32 were from the district including Lynn Lake, 10 were from Island Lake, nine were in the Grand Rapids area, and five were in Thompson.
(Some new cases reported Thursday may have been identified up to 14 days ago, due to the use of rapid testing in remote communities.)
The town of Lynn Lake is currently under a curfew in an effort to halt the spread of the virus, while a number of First Nations are reporting escalating case counts.
Garden Hill First Nation — nearly 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg — has 289 active cases, according to Four Arrows Regional Health Authority. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces have been deployed to the community to assist.
"Right now, in the northern region, there certainly are concerning outbreaks in specific remote communities, but that’s not it," chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Thursday. "There are cases that are dispersed throughout."
While the province will ease some pandemic restrictions in southern Manitoba on Saturday, no changes will occur in the North. Roussin said travel restrictions for the region remain in place, but he could not comment on whether enforcement would be stepped up.
Misipawistik Cree Nation, just south of Grand Rapids, currently has 53 active cases and is also under a curfew, according to local leadership. More than 100 people were considered contacts, as of Tuesday.
"Let’s not forget the significant amount of people travelling through communities such as Grand Rapids," Settee said. "This community has worked diligently to keep COVID-19 out of their community and yet, despite repeated requests for enforcement, they get absolutely no help from the province to enforce the travel restriction."
Alex McDougall, executive director of Four Arrows, said there are currently 327 active cases on-reserve in the Island Lake district (which includes Garden Hill, Red Sucker Lake, St. Theresa Point and Wasagamack).
"The leadership have imposed a complete community lockdown," McDougall said. "Over the weekend, we had to send two of our staff members from our office to assist with the (contact) tracing to control the transmission of the virus within the communities.
"The community and the leadership with their local emergency pandemic teams are doing what they can to try and control the spread of the virus and containing it to the individuals who have been affected."
McDougall said people who have tested positive for the virus, or who have been identified as contacts, are isolating in the community rather than being sent to alternative isolation accommodations in Winnipeg or elsewhere.
The decision to keep them close to home was made after an outbreak at a Winnipeg isolation centre may have spread the virus to the community, he said.
The regional authority has also requested more accurate data sharing by the province, when it comes to COVID-19 cases off reserve, to better understand the risk in the region, McDougall said.
Similar concerns were echoed by Settee, who said Northern Health and Indigenous Services Canada have yet to provide MKO with epidemiology that might reveal the source of outbreaks in northern Manitoba.
On Thursday, the province announced Winnipeg had recorded 54 new infections, followed by Prairie Mountain (17), Southern Health (13), and Interlake-Eastern (nine).
The five-day test positivity rate in Manitoba was 9.2 per cent. Within Winnipeg, the positivity rate was 6.6 per cent.
Five more Manitobans died of COVID-19, including: a woman in her 60s from Northern Health; a man in his 60s from Southern Health; a man in his 80s connected to an outbreak at Poseidon Care Centre (Winnipeg); a man in his 80s connected to an outbreak at McCreary/Alonsa Health Centre; and a woman in her 90s linked to an outbreak at Salem Home (Winkler).
The total number of COVID-19 deaths in Manitoba rose to 793.
As of Thursday morning, 268 people were receiving care in hospital related to COVID-19, including 34 in intensive care units.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.