Shamattawa First Nation dealing with ‘off the charts’ COVID-19 outbreak

Chief wants military brought in to help  

Members of the COVID-19 rapid response medical team in Shamattawa. Facebook photo


An isolated First Nation in northern Manitoba has COVID-19 “numbers off the charts” and needs emergency military intervention, says area MP Nikki Ashton.

“Shamattawa is up to 106 cases as of a few minutes ago,” Ashton said in an interview with APTN News after voicing her concerns during question period Thursday.

“Just this morning the chief let me know one of the doctors on the rapid response team is in isolation.”

The remote riding, about 745 km north of Winnipeg, is accessible only by air and winter road.

Chief Eric Redhead did not respond to a request for comment but has been posting daily updates on the community’s Facebook page.

Two members of the Rapid Response Team in Shamattawa First Nation. Facebook photo

“One of our Rapid Response team members are in isolation – a Dr. We are literally at a breaking point,” Redhead posted Thursday.

“Everyone needs to stay home.”

Redhead said 37 band members have been flown to Winnipeg to isolate outside the community of just over 1,000 people.

“Our test positive rate is at 50% that means for everyone tested half come back positive! Everyone needs to stay home. Even during the day.

“House parties/ Gatherings have dropped. (still the odd one). We are hiring more people to enforce this. If you are out during the day you will be sent home.”

One of the social distancing signs in Shamattawa. Facebook photo

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Wednesday he would be speaking with Redhead via phone.

But his department was unable to provide an update by end of day Thursday.

Ashton said Shamattawa’s COVID-19 test results were shocking.

As was the added complication of some tuberculosis cases in the Swampy Cree community.

“That can only be the highest level of an urgent response from the federal government,” she suggested.

The rapid response team is a medical team overseen by the federal and provincial governments and the University of Manitoba, which supplies northern doctors through its medical school.

Photos on the community Facebook page show some of those team members wearing medical gowns and face masks.

A sign from a dwelling in Shamattawa. Facebook

Ashton said it was time to call in the military. Again.

The Canadian Armed Forces arrived in Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN), another northern Manitoba First Nation, in November after an outbreak hit that community in October.

“We do have a recent example of the military going into OCN,” she noted. “They did an extraordinary job working with the First Nation.”

The Shamattawa band council has declared a state of emergency and imposed strict lockdown rules. Only one member of each household may shop for groceries, and an enforcement team is handing out fines for infractions.

Redhead said in another post he was “pushing for the Canadian military to help with their medical expertise.

“Stay home!” he added. “I’m lost for words right now. (That’s rare).”

The Manitoba government, through a spokesperson, said it had not been asked “to provide any specific or unique support” to Shamattawa at this time. But would make resources available through its Northern Region Health Authority.

On Friday, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) confirmed Shamattawa had requested assistance.

“All possible sources of support are being considered, and we are working to have assistance in place quickly with the concurrence of the First Nation,” it said in an email.

It said it sent a temporary isolation structure to the community, which has been operational since Nov. 29.

It said it is working with the National Microbiology Laboratory at the Public Health Agency of Canada to increase access to rapid point-of-care tests, in particular for remote and isolated Indigenous communities.

In addition to the rapid test kits, ISC said it continues to provide Manitoba First Nations with PCR COVID-19 testing swabs.

“All nursing stations on Manitoba First Nations are able to take samples for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) test. All persons living on-reserve in Manitoba have access to a COVID-19 test through health facilities in Manitoba.”

ISC said the nursing station in Shamattawa is equipped with a GeneXpert point of care testing device with additional cartridges.

“While rapid testing is an excellent resource in responding to COVID-19, the most important action to interrupt spread is effective isolation of cases, identifying contacts and following public health measures.” it said in the email.

“We remain in active communication with the community and stand ready to provide additional support, as needed.”

Editor’s note: This story was amended 4/12/20 to include comments from the provincial and federal governments.

Investigative Reporter / Winnipeg

Award-winning reporter Kathleen Martens covers western and northern Canada for aptnnews.ca. A veteran of the Brandon Sun, Sun Media and APTN Investigates, she is based in APTN’s head office, specializing in stories about property, women’s rights and community.