Pimicikamak tightens COVID-19 restrictions, issues stay-at-home order

People living in Pimicikamak Cree Nation have once again been ordered  to stay home except for essential reasons in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the remote northern First Nation.

The order, which comes at the request of the chief and council, goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning. People in the First Nation, also known as Cross Lake, must stay at home or in the immediate vicinity.

All businesses except those deemed essential must be closed. Only one person per household will be allowed to leave to get essential items like food or medicine. Essential workers and people seeking medical care are also allowed to leave their home.

“We have to get the people to stay at home to make sure that they don’t contact other households … to keep the virus away from everybody,” said Pimicikamak Coun. Donnie McKay.

Pimicikimak Cree Nation Coun. Donnie McKay says the increased health measures were needed to keep the virus in check. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The First Nation has enforcement officers out in the community, often around the clock, to make sure people obey isolation orders, McKay said. Previous health orders divided the community into sectors and set up check stops to limit travel, but he said it’s been hard to keep the virus in check.

“It’s been very demanding for our people here. Plus, we do have the lack of resources in a northern remote community,” McKay said.

“We don’t have the capacity that maybe cities like Thompson and Winnipeg have to ensure that people are kept within their social distance measured,” he said.

As of Friday afternoon, there were 42 active cases in the community of roughly 8,500, according to the provincial government’s online COVID-19 dashboard. Although cases have been falling in the community — there were 89 cases at the start of the month — McKay said the community doesn’t have the resources to fight the virus, and overcrowded housing can quickly lead to transmission within families. 

Pimicikamak has been under varying degrees of lockdown orders for months, starting in October.

With only three nurses on staff at any given time at the community’s nursing station, McKay said health workers are struggling.

“They’re just overwhelmed, they’re overburdened, they’re so stressed out. You know, this one of our own nurses was crying out for help this afternoon when we were on the phone,” he said.

Ground has broken on a new hospital to replace the nursing station in the community. 

So far, 200 elders have received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine, but McKay said delays in vaccine shipments have raised concerns about how effective those immunizations will be if those people don’t get their second dose within the recommended timeframe.

First Nations in Manitoba have fought hard to keep the virus out of their communities, but Indigenous people make up a disproportionate number of the province’s active COVID-19 cases. Even as case counts have fallen in southern Manitoba, numbers in the northern and eastern regions remain high.  

As of Friday, there were 1,120 active cases among First Nations people according to the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team, more than two-thirds of 1,582 active cases reported by the province.