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Many Saskatchewan First Nations residents are travelling hours to get coronavirus treatment

Many Saskatchewan First Nations residents are travelling hours to get coronavirus treatment
WATCH: The novel coronavirus poses a heightened threat to Indigenous communities because of limited access to health-care services and socio-economic factors have made them more vulnerable.

Wanda Wolverine Poorman’s daughter was infected with the novel coronavirus in April. According to Poorman, the health centre on the English River First Nation Patuanuk reserve could not provide adequate treatment.

First, her daughter was moved about 175 kilometres to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Île-à-la-Crosse. Then she was airlifted to Saskatoon, 500 kilometres away from the family home.

Wolverine Poorman said the distance was daunting.

“The clinic here was not fully equipped for COVID care,” she told Global News in an interview.

Wolverine Poorman said her daughter did not need intensive care or a ventilator. However, she had underlying health conditions that were exacerbated by COVID-19.

She said she was reassured by knowing that her daughter was getting adequate care in Saskatoon. But Wolverine Poorman and her husband drove nearly six hours each way to pick her up after she recovered.

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Their situation isn’t unique.

Close to 40 per cent of First Nations in Saskatchewan have no immediate access to a hospital equipped to handle complicated cases of COVID-19.

This is according to data mapped by the Institute for Investigative Journalism’s Project Pandemic using Esri ArcGIS technology. The numbers indicate that 28 of 70 First Nations in the province are more than 50 kilometres from a facility that the provincial government has confirmed can offer care for coronavirus patients.

While the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) said in an email that there could be “any number of reasons a physician would choose to transfer a patient to another facility, perhaps COVID-related and perhaps not,” it confirmed the hospital in Île-à-la-Crosse does offer “initial COVID care.”

“If needed in future due to a surge, Île-à-la-Crosse would be a mixed facility, providing inpatients with both COVID and non-COVID care.”

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The SHA “recognizes the need to have all of its facilities in the north provide COVID care” and that it is “confident residents can access COVID care at their nearest health care facility.”

But the regional distribution of Saskatchewan’s COVID-19 cases suggests otherwise.

English River-Patunauk is part of the vast, sparsely populated region primarily composed of Indigenous communities being described by provincial officials as Saskatchewan’s “far north” during the pandemic.

Coronavirus outbreak: Public health officials address COVID-19 outbreak in northern Saskatchewan First Nations community
Coronavirus outbreak: Public health officials address COVID-19 outbreak in northern Saskatchewan First Nations community

Of the 796 COVID-19 cases confirmed in Saskatchewan at the time of this report, 335 have been from the far north.

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At one point, there were more than 250 active cases in the region. This number has since dropped to fewer than 50, but the virus continues to be more prevalent there than in any other region in the province. The south, with the next most active cases, has fewer than 20.

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And as of June 30, Saskatchewan had the highest per capita infection rate among First Nations in the country.

Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) medical health officer Nnamdi Ndubuka said the underlying socioeconomic conditions and limited access to health-care services are also making it harder to contain the virus in the north.

Read more: Coronavirus — FSIN wants to see urgent action on COVID-19 for remote communities

Data from Statistics Canada compiled as part of Project Pandemic suggests there is overcrowding happening in the households of 90 per cent of First Nations in Saskatchewan — a major challenge for the people living under those conditions who need to quarantine due to COVID-19.

Ndubuka told Global News that inadequate housing is a long-standing problem on many reserves across Canada, including those in NITHA’s catchment zone. He said it’s become even more of an issue during the pandemic.

“We do know that adequate housing is the first line of defence against the spread of COVID-19,” Ndubuka said. “Unfortunately, most of the houses have not received attention.”

Read more: Remote First Nations ‘ill-equipped’ for novel coronavirus pandemic, FSIN says

The high infection rates also come as no surprise to Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron.

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“We knew all along, we said it right from Day 1,” said Cameron. “Should or if there is a COVID case, it’s going to be absolutely challenging and devastating to communities.”

Read more: Family of 15 navigate in-home COVID-19 outbreak on Saskatchewan First Nation

When the novel coronavirus struck the Wolverine Poorman household, 15 people found themselves in lockdown together.

The family considers itself fortunate to have a bi-level home with two bathrooms. They said this made it possible to contain the virus by separating the infected from the healthy, while using masks and intensive cleaning.

Wolverine Poorman, who was one of the people infected, said they had no choice but to take these measures, because another one of her daughters has advanced cancer and was forced to stay under the same roof.

“I literally, every night, I swear I prayed super hard. At the end of everything, all I could do was thank the Creator that everything turned out the way it did,” Wolverine Poorman said.

Family of 15 navigate in-home COVID-19 outbreak on Saskatchewan First Nation
Family of 15 navigate in-home COVID-19 outbreak on Saskatchewan First Nation

The evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic in Saskatchewan has exposed the stark divide between the north and south of the province, say northern residents and leaders. Many of those who spoke to Global News said they felt like second-rate citizens “abandoned by the province.” It’s as if there are “two Saskatchewans,” they said.

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Read more: Northwest Saskatchewan food insecurity highlighted by coronavirus crisis

Cameron, the FSIN chief, said he has heard this sentiment as well and that it is not new, but exacerbated by the pandemic. He said the provincial and federal governments could address these problems if they start making investments.

“Now is the time to develop more infrastructure in our northern communities. Now is the time to secure more medical services in our northern communities,” said Cameron.

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said it is monitoring the public health risk closely and working with both the SHA and NITHA as well as other community partners to respond to COVID-19.

“ISC is very concerned that the northern region of Saskatchewan has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” the department said in an email.

Read more: National journalism project could fill Saskatchewan coronavirus data void

The provincial health authority acknowledges that these communities face “unique challenges.”

“We are always open to improving our services in any area of the province we serve,” the health authority said in its email to Global News.

In a separate email to Global News, Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health noted the health authority has spent $1.3 million on responding to COVID-19 in the northern part of the province. The province says a total of $502 million has been put toward COVID-19-related expenses since March 18, when the province declared a state of emergency

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The federal government made a $2.3-million contribution, Global News reported in May.

It’s not enough, said Cameron, who, like Ndubuka, also worries about acute ground-level issues, such as the level of personal protective equipment supplies.

Northern Saskatchewan First Nations communities concerned over lack of PPE for healthcare workers
Northern Saskatchewan First Nations communities concerned over lack of PPE for healthcare workers

In a survey conducted by reporters from the Institute for Investigative Journalism, 13 out of 15 co-ordinators responsible for overseeing the COVID-19 pandemic response in Saskatchewan First Nations expressed a range of concerns. These included concerns about not having access to enough protective gear such as N95 masks or fears that they would run out. Some also expressed concerns about their elderly residents and about not having access to local health-care services.

To just get a handle of the current situation, “more needs to be done and it needs to be done immediately,” Cameron said.

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“We got to get through this and we’ve got to start preparing for the second wave if and when it does come.”

With files from Angela Amato, Jaida Beaudin-Herney, Karina Zapata and Declan Keogh

“Project Pandemic: Canada Reports on COVID-19” is co-ordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, with the support of the Canadian Association of Journalists. For more information, please visit projectpandemic.concordia.ca.