First Nations taking preventative measures to combat COVID-19

Western Canada’s biggest First Nation isn’t waiting for the provincial or federal governments to tell it what to do when it comes to combating the COVID-19 virus.

“We’ve upped the ante on our prevention,” said Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, a physician with the Blood Tribe in southern Alberta.

“We’re screening for fever and other symptoms of the COVID virus, and we’re setting up  mobile clinics.”

Tailfeathers said emergency personnel will go door to door to swab band members instead of asking them to come to the health centre, where they could infect others.

She said the proactive move is a result of some patients complaining about possible symptoms.

“We started already doing the swabs and screening for COVID, we started late last week,” she said. “It would be naïve to think that we won’t actually be hit.”

12,000 members

With more than 12,000 members, Blood Tribe is one of 45 First Nations in Alberta.

Most members have access to water, but Tailfeathers said some don’t.

In Saskatchewan, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) is halting out of province and out of country travel, but keeping its seven casinos open as it prepares to fight the coronavirus that is sickening people in Canada and around the world.

“I know the casino is going to be taking some measures,” said Heather Bear, vice-chief of FSIN, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan.

“There again, you have people travelling from a great distance and those are the high risk areas that we want to try to avoid.”

FSIN was one of several Indigenous organizations in western Canada Friday that held news conferences about how they were informing their members to beat the global pandemic.

“We’ll continue to urge all our First Nations not to be in a panic,” added FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron.

“…See, our First Nations’ people, we have withstood the test of time. Our prayers, our traditional medicine off the land, has helped thousands of years ago and we’re going to depend on that going into this year 2020 with Covid-19.”

FSIN enacted its pandemic plan Thursday, said Bear, which keeps only essential staff in its Saskatoon office and everyone else working from home.

It is also prohibiting travel outside the province and country, and postponing conferences, events and forums until further notice.

“As you know First Nations’ people are highly represented with diabetes and we represent a vulnerable population,” said Bear.

Cameron said FSIN won’t tell its member First Nations whether to close their schools and will support them either way.

“You’ve all seen the numbers,” he added, “11 million to 26 million Canadians will be affected if it escalates to a boiling point. It’s pretty serious.”

At the time of this posting, 152 people have tested positive with COVID-19. One elderly man in British Columbia has died because of it.

Health officials are pleading for people who wash their hands on a regular basis, cancel all international travel and to keep a one metre space while in a crowd.

MMF

The Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) is also preparing to protect its people.

President David Chartrand said it purchased three mobile homes for use in communities where people report symptoms and need to be quarantined.

“If you’ve got to isolate in a six-foot radius, how can you isolate when you’re already stepping over each other in the house? In the event there is somebody hit in the family, we can have a place to isolate that family member and within the same time (a) neighbouring place as their own home.”

The MMF also owns two 48-bed camps in western Manitoba it is converting into isolation health centres.

“Right now, we have this facility,” said Chartrand. “If we don’t need it, then we’ll help somebody else.

“So we’re preparing ourselves for the worst-case scenario, not just for the Métis but for Manitoba as a whole.”

The organization has also cancelled all further meetings and non-essential, out-of-province travel. Chartrand said it is being proactive because the Manitoba government has not been in touch.

“…We obviously can’t wait for the province to say, ‘OK, let’s put the Métis on our agenda.’ They’re not doing it at this point and time.”

COVID-19

In a COVID-19 briefing with reporters Friday morning, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health office said the province’s pandemic plan includes remote and isolated communities.

There are 64 First Nations in Manitoba.

“In our incident management structure, we have both First Nation Inuit Health Branch (FNIHB) and the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat at the table, and from there they fan out information to each community to make their plans,” said Dr. Brent Roussin.

Manitoba’s chief nursing officer agreed.

“Each regional health authority has their own incident management structure and they are bringing in the First Nations communities within their region to plan together,” said Lanette Siragusa, “as well as the medical officers of health – so they are developing what those operational plans are for the communities.”

Still, First Nation chiefs in Saskatchewan are worried, said Bear, because many of their communities are far from hospitals and don’t even have doctors.

“We don’t know if something like that hits if even a doctor will come out there. It’s just the unknown,” she said. “With First Nations communities we do have unique issues and concerns.”

In Ontario, the province with the most confirmed cases, the Chiefs of Ontario (COO) are reiterating what health officials are saying.

Conference calls

The COO is holding regular conference calls and asking people to remain vigilant when having to travel into urban centres.

“While the risk of transmission remains low in Ontario, measures to prevent or slow down transmission are encouraged, such as cancelling or postponing all in-person meetings or events of more than 250 people and office closures,” said Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald in a statement released Friday. “These are the steps that are being taken by the Chiefs of Ontario.

“Decisions to cancel events are not taken lightly, and I applaud those who have taken these steps such as the Little NHL, as this step puts the health and safety of our communities at the forefront.”

Valerie Gideon, assistant deputy minister of Indigenous Services, said people must be careful when travelling from remote communities to urban centres for appointments.

“H1N1, that’s when, that was the source of the first exposure particularly in remote and isolated communities where people travelled out and they went to urban centres and then they came back home and they had contracted H1N1,” Gideon told a parliamentary committee Thursday.

“So what’s important for us is to ensure that particularly those more vulnerable clients will be able to access private transportation and private accommodation measures so that they’re avoiding, to the extent possible, more group settings.”

Correction: This story was updated to say there are 64 First Nations in Manitoba not 34. 

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.

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