COVID 19 outbreak in northern Saskatchewan ‘of concern:’ top health officer

Canada’s chief public health officer says a COVID-19 outbreak gripping northern Saskatchewan is an area of concern.

Dr. Theresa Tam says not only is the region remote, but it’s home to Indigenous communities.

Health officials in Saskatchewan say the novel coronavirus arrived in the Dene village of La Loche, 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, last month via travel from the Imperial Oil Kearl Lake tar sands work camp which is 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

It has since spread through the community, making it the region in the province with the most active cases and triggering a lockdown there on non-essential travel.

Over the last three days, Saskatchewan has reported 69 new confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in La Loche and nearby communities, bringing the total number of  people who have tested positive in the far north up to 152.

Two elders living in a long-term care facility in La Loche have died from complications related to COVID-19.

During her daily briefing in Ottawa, Tam said there’s a significant number of health workers going door-to-door in La Loche to search out infections.

“People are taking it extremely seriously because these are more vulnerable situations,” she said Wednesday.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has also offered its support, she said.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority declared Wednesday a second outbreak at a hospital in the north.

It says a staff member at the Meadow Lake Hospital has tested positive for COVID-19 and the case is believed to be connected to community transmission.

Earlier, the health authority reported an infected patient from La Loche had stayed at the Victoria Hospital in Prince Albert.

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has called the northern outbreak alarming. He said First Nations communities are more vulnerable because of overcrowded living conditions and a lack of hospital access.

The nearby Clearwater River Dene Nation and the English River First Nation have also reported cases of COVID-19.

Premier Scott Moe has said testing and contact tracing have been ramped up, so he expects the number of infections in the region to keep rising.

La Loche was not allowed to ease any COVID-19 restrictions under the first stage of Saskatchewan’s reopening plan that took effect Monday.

Moe said he remains confident in moving ahead with the plan in the rest of the province, where there hasn’t been the same spike in infections.

Watch Jamie Pashagumskum’s story from Ottawa: 

Saskatchewan isn’t the only province easing restrictions. Quebec is opening some schools and municipalities across the country are opening up public spaces again with restrictions in place.

But at a federal level, there is friction between parties on how to relax measures.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he understands that people want to get back to work – but warns there have been workplace deaths due to COVID-19.

“We know that it will mean the lives of people if we don’t ensure that the return to work includes safety for workers, paid sick leave and ensuring that people have access to childcare,” he said.

In the daily briefing of the government’s COVID-19 committee, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said her concern is with seniors in Canada.

“Our elders are now the generation most in need of our protection from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Freeland said. “They look to us to follow the advice of public health professionals.”