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Some residents of a northern Manitoba First Nation are being sent to Winnipeg to be closer to hospitals in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak in their home community.

Eleven people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Pimicikamak (Cross Lake) Cree Nation. The outbreak began with two cases last week, following funeral services in the community that has an on-reserve population of roughly 6,000.

Four people have been sent to Winnipeg as a precaution, but are not hospitalized, Chief David Monias said Wednesday.

Monias said officials do not yet know how the virus entered the community located some 530 kilometres north of the capital; public health orders banning travel to northern Manitoba were renewed earlier this month.

"We haven't nailed down as to how it came in," the chief said, saying contact tracers are working as part of a rapid response team. "We're not 100 per cent sure."

The community has imposed "code red," critical-level lockdown restrictions. All but essential businesses are closed, a nightly curfew is in effect, residents must wear a face mask when leaving home and must only leave home for medical treatment or to stock up on food and supplies.

The local Northmart store is enforcing capacity limits and only one person from each household is allowed to shop at a time, Monias said.

The measures are needed to stop the spread of the virus within the community, which has no hospital and has been dealing with chronic staff shortages at its nursing station. The station's full complement of nurses is 16, but it only has six, the chief said.

Construction of the community's health centre is two years behind schedule.

When the pandemic was declared in March, Pimicikamak was Manitoba's first reserve community to declare a state of emergency and shut down its schools. Many other First Nations imposed lockdowns and travel bans on band members, allowing only essential travel to continue.

Earlier this month, Little Grand Rapids First Nation went to code red, imposing critical restrictions.

"For the last eight months, we were successful in keeping this out. But it was not a matter of if this was going to come through, it was a matter of when was it going to come through. So for the past few months, we've been getting ready," Monias said, explaining the First Nation had been planning its response alongside Indigenous Services Canada and federal health officials.

A representative for the First Nations and Inuit health program was not immediately available for comment Wednesday.

Monias said most residents have been following the lockdown rules, though he said he understands the impact of isolation on mental health.

"Back in 1918, we lost about 46 per cent of our population in Cross Lake due to Spanish flu, and we're doing everything we can to learn from that situation and to stop it, to ensure that we are not in that same situation again," he said.

"We have to somehow learn to live with this until we get the vaccine, and make sure that we do things that are safe for our children and for the elderly."

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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