Coronavirus: 1st COVID-19 case surfaces in northwestern Ontario Indigenous community

Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau says testing will be ‘essential part of how we get through this’
WATCH ABOVE: Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau says testing will be 'essential part of how we get through this' (April 6, 2020)


The COVID-19 pandemic has reached a remote First Nation in northwestern Ontario, a local health authority said Monday as it cautioned the virus would soon place additional strain on a social and health-care system poorly equipped to handle it.

A statement from the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority said a positive case of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus has surfaced in Eabametoong First Nation. The community, about 300 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., is one of 49 remote areas comprising the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.

NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said the patient recently returned to Eabametoong from Thunder Bay, where COVID-19 cases have already been confirmed.

READ MORE: 309 new coronavirus cases reported in Ontario, total hits 4,347 and 132 deaths

Story continues below advertisement

He said the man is self-isolating at home, but said the emergence of the virus in Eabametoong is sounding alarms across NAN territory.

“This makes it even more real for all of us,” Fiddler said in a telephone interview from Thunder Bay. “The urgency of it all, and the importance of our communities to continue practising what we’ve been told by public health experts.”

But Fiddler said heeding that advice is more difficult in Indigenous communities than elsewhere in Canada.

The time-honoured advice to wash hands regularly, he said, will be difficult to follow in Eabametoong, which has been under a boil-water advisory since 2001.

Self-isolation, too, poses a problem in communities plagued by housing shortages and chronic overcrowding.

Fiddler said numerous NAN communities are looking into converting empty classrooms and vacant community centres into spaces where prospective patients could be kept isolated if needed.

[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]

But public health officials warned that even with preventative measures in place, the medical system serving northern communities does not have the capacity to deal with the crushing load COVID-19 has placed on other parts of Canada’s health-care apparatus.

Federal government recommends First Nations suspend spring elections during coronavirus pandemic
Federal government recommends First Nations suspend spring elections during coronavirus pandemic

Dr. Natalie Bocking, a physician with the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, said most Indigenous communities wrestle with a shortage of personnel and equipment at the best of times.

Story continues below advertisement

During a pandemic, she said, those shortages will be exacerbated and an already vulnerable population will face a heightened threat.

“Communities like Eabametoong experience a disproportionate burden of other chronic health conditions that put them at higher risk of becoming more sick with the virus,” she said. “The worst-case scenario we are concerned about where there are multiple people getting quite sick without the care that they need.”

Bocking and Fiddler both said talks are underway with various levels of government to secure key supplies, including the personal protective equipment that’s currently scarce across the province.

Premier Doug Ford said Monday that Ontario is at risk of depleting its stock of masks, gowns, gloves and other gear within a week without a renewal of supplies.

READ MORE: Fifteen cases of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities to date, Canadian minister reports

The Ministry of Health did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Canada’s top doctor, meanwhile, acknowledged that the public health advice guiding the rest of the country can’t be applied in the same way across Canada’s Indigenous communities.

“We’ve issued guidance for public health actions in more remote and rural settings as well, and those do have to be adapted to the realities of what’s on the ground,” Dr. Theresa Tam told a Monday news conference without providing specific details of how guidelines have been revised.

Story continues below advertisement

Bocking said health authorities have received acknowledgment that self-isolation is not possible in many homes in remote communities, such as three-bedroom houses with as many as 20 people living in them. Such messages, she said, have shaped conversations about how to create additional spaces for self-isolation.

READ MORE: NDP says COVID-19 crisis distracting from northern Ontario First Nation’s flooding plight

Fiddler said remote communities are increasingly concerned about the potential spread of COVID-19, which has surfaced in a number of cities that serve as key gateways to more remote First Nations. He said those include northern urban centres such as Timmins, Sioux Lookout and Dryden.

The sorts of physical distancing measures that have transformed daily life across much of the country, he said, have taken hold in more remote areas over the past week-and-a-half.

“There’s a growing sense that this is a real threat to our communities,” he said. “We have to do everything we can to try and prevent it.”


Coronavirus outbreak: Ford announces one-time payment for parents impacted by COVID-19
Coronavirus outbreak: Ford announces one-time payment for parents impacted by COVID-19