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‘This is an unfolding nightmare’: Shamattawa First Nation COVID-19 outbreak worsens

Click to play video 'COVID-19 troubles in Shamattawa First Nation' COVID-19 troubles in Shamattawa First Nation
A COVID-19 outbreak in Shamattawa First Nations so dire, the chief says it needs immediate military support. Erik Pindera reports. – Dec 3, 2020

An isolated northern Manitoba Indigenous community’s COVID-19 outbreak is so dire it needs military support immediately, its chief said.

“We need the military’s medical expertise, we need their temporary field hospitals, we need temporary structures,” Shamattawa First Nation Chief Eric Redhead said in a phone interview from his home in the remote community about 745 km north of Winnipeg.

But despite repeated calls for help from the federal NDP and the community’s chief, the federal government has not yet committed to sending troops to the fly-in community.

“This is an unfolding nightmare,” NDP Churchill-Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton told the House of Commons Thursday.

“I appreciate that the minister of defence is aware and responding but this situation is getting worse by the hour.”

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Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he will speak to the chief Thursday.

“A rapid response team has been deployed along with… shelters that have been in operation since last week. We’ll remain in active communication with the community and stand ready to provide additional support,” Miller said.

That rapid response team is comprised of physicians, nurses, mental health professionals, as well as physiotherapists and occupational therapists, an Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson said in an email Friday morning.

Read more: All residents at northern Manitoba care home test positive for COVID-19

As of Wednesday, at least 91 people had tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the community of 1,000. The test positivity rate is 50 per cent.

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Overcrowding in the community’s homes has created the “perfect breeding ground” for the spread of the virus.

“I’m getting calls from members who are saying ‘so-and-so is positive and they’re isolating in their room but I have infants, I have elders in the home, and I’m afraid they’re going to infect us,’” Redhead said.

“When you have 15 people in a small home, that’s not a good situation for everyone.”

Redhead said his community needs military aid to allow COVID-19 positive patients to properly and safely self-isolate.

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Prior to the outbreak, the community shut down.

“We’re at a point where we were stretched thin already — there’s nothing more to stretch… we’re literally at the breaking point here.”

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Its band office is closed and the health clinic is only open for emergencies. The school is closed. The community implemented a travel ban — people can only leave for essential medical treatment. The First Nation implemented a curfew and a mask mandate.

The leadership has delivered food hampers to peoples’ homes to keep them from venturing out, Redhead said.

But the community is worried while cases increase.

“They’re scared for their loved ones, they’re scared for their elders, I’m scared for everyone. Our message is stay home, stay home, stay home,” Redhead said.

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Read more: Winnipeg health officials say there were issues with equipment, feeding at Maples PCH

Global News requested an update on the federal response to Shamattawa’s COVID-19 outbreak from Indigenous Services Canada Thursday morning.

Late in the afternoon, the federal department’s media office said it hopes to provide an update at some point Thursday evening.

Then Friday morning, the office provided a response, noting a temporary isolation structure and testing supplies have been sent to the community.

“ISC is working with the National Microbiology Laboratory at the Public Health Agency of Canada to increase access to authorized rapid point-of-care tests, in particular for remote and isolated Indigenous communities,” the email reads in part.

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

But on Tuesday federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh pushed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons over the chief’s request for military help.

“Will the prime minister heed the call of the chief and send in the military?” Singh asked.

At the time, Trudeau said the federal government is working with Indigenous communities nationwide to ensure their needs are met — but didn’t commit to sending in military aid.

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