Shamattawa First Nation seeking military aid for COVID-19 outbreak

A COVID-19 rapid response team is on the ground in a northern Manitoba First Nation, but the community is looking for further support after 30 new cases were linked to the community Sunday.

There are 60 known active COVID-19 cases in Shamattawa First Nation right now, including 30 to 35 isolating off-reserve, according to chief Eric Redhead.

“Those numbers are really, really scary for us,” said Redhead. “We’re kind of lost. We’ve deployed all the resources that we have to our disposal, and we’re really getting nowhere.”

“This is a scary time we’re living in. I think people are really scared. They’re scared for their loved ones, are scared for their own health and safety.” 

Shamattawa, a fly-in community 745 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, has implemented emergency measures to try curbing the spread of the illness. They include a curfew, mask mandate, limit on how many can be in the grocery store, and closing the school and band office, said Redhead.

Some band members were hired as COVID-19 enforcement officers or to disinfect the homes of people who test positive, he added.

Shamattawa has also been dealing with outbreaks of tuberculosis, Redhead told CBC News. (CBC)

“I want to say that a vast majority of my members have been compliant and take this very, very serious,” said Redhead. “But there are some who refuse to take this serious and they add to the situation.”

While Shamattawa has more than 1,000 residents, Redhead said he is mainly concerned for the health of the community’s elders.

Part of that concern stems from overcrowding in homes. There have been several instances where more than a dozen people, living in the same home, were forced to leave because they all tested positive for COVID-19 and had to isolate elsewhere, Redhead said.

“I truly believe that if we had adequate housing and were able to keep safe distance from one another, then it wouldn’t be as bad,” he said.

The Red Cross is in the community and is also helping people isolate in hotels outside of the First Nation, Redhead said.

Redhead is pushing for military help, such as the medical expertise deployed to Opaskwayak Cree Nation, in order to create field hospitals and help monitor and isolate COVID-19 patients.

A Canadian Forces multi-purpose medical assistance team was deployed to OCN on Nov. 21 to help with a COVID-19 outbreak at a personal care home. (Submitted by Department of National Defence)

The chief is unsure whether the call for help will be approved, but he says it’s worth requesting because the situation in Shamattawa is that severe.

More than half of the 63 First Nations in Manitoba have reported a case of COVID-19.

First Nations people account for 19 per cent of the province’s total known active COVID-19 cases, a quarter of the hospitalizations, and 17 patients in intensive care, according to the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 bulletin issued Monday.

The bulletin, which includes data from over the weekend, noted six First Nations people were among the deaths announced by the province, including a boy under the age of 10 living Winnipeg.

An outbreak at a personal care home in OCN, about 520 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, recently required help from the military.

All 28 residents of Rod McGillivary Memorial Care Home, and at least 17 of the 48 staff members, tested positive for COVID-19. One resident died but the rest recovered, and all infected staff have recovered and returned to work. The outbreak was declared over on Sunday.

Redhead noted that other communities, including OCN, have had similar COVID-19 numbers as Shamattawa, but said “those communities are four or five times larger.”

On top of its current COVID-19 outbreak, Shamattawa has dealt with a spike of tuberculosis cases since last summer, Redhead said. Tuberculosis, or TB, is an infectious disease that typically impacts the lungs.