The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) says seven probable cases of the B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant that first originated in the United Kingdom have been identified on Pauingassi First Nation.
The notice came after Chief Roddy Owens had an emergency phone meeting with Indigenous Services Canada and nearby Little Grand Rapids First Nation Chief Raymond Keeper.
The samples were screened at Manitoba’s Cadham provincial laboratory and have been sent down the street to the National Microbiology Lab for confirmation.
“There was some findings and then I guess yesterday would have been confirmation that these anomalies were discovered and are severe enough that they needed confirmation from the national lab,” AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said Sunday.
It’s not yet known how the variant may have spread to the First Nation.
The community has been under a strict lockdown order since Feb. 2, and last weekend, more than a dozen Canadian Armed Forces personnel arrived in the community to provide support for at least a fortnight.
Pauingassi is approximately 280 km northeast of Winnipeg, home to around 500 people.
“The identified individuals were previously notified and have been isolating since their initial positive COVID-19 results and have now been notified regarding the probable variant presence,” First Nation pandemic response co-ordination team member Dr. Marcia Anderson says.
“Aggressive public health actions targeted at identifying any further contacts to these cases and ensuring they are tested and are isolating according to public health requirements will help contain the spread of this possible variant of concern.”
“It takes great strength and courage in the face of COVID-19 to continue to remain calm and support one’s Nation and each other as they deal with a difficult and evolving situation. To the Nation and their leadership: we are here for you every step of the way,” AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas stated on Saturday.
Manitoba has seen just one case of the B.1.1.7 variant to this point.
The lone case was related to international travel from Europe, and was only identified after the individual had already recovered from the virus.
None of the individuals’ household contacts ended up with positive test results.
“It won’t be until we get verification of the variant that we will have to adjust,” Grand Chief Dumas said. “Because if in fact it is then we will need to determine how that had happened. As you know, there was only one confirmed case in Manitoba a week ago, and we need to determine if there was a connection.”
While officials believe the variant could be up to 50 per cent more transmissible, there’s no evidence to suggest it results in more severe health outcomes or is more deadly.
The U.K. variant is believed to be responsible for a number of large-scale outbreaks in Ontario and Alberta.
Federal and provincial health officials have warned B.1.1.7 could soon become the dominant strain and complicate any intentions or efforts to gradually reopen the economy again.
Infectious disease expert Jason Kindrachuk says a more transmissible version of the virus could exacerbate the effect COVID-19 has already had on those who are unable to safely isolate from household members.
“There are concerns when you look at different socio-economic factors that play into transmission,” he tells 680 CJOB. “But, I think it does go back to say when we do things properly, we can still control transmission.”
The news comes the same weekend Manitoba relaxed public health restrictions for a number of sectors across the province, including allowing restaurants to re-open to dine-in service for the first time since early November.
Weeks ago, in light of the variant’s emergence in Canada, the province also put an order into effect requiring all non-essential travellers entering the province to self-isolate for two weeks.
Kindrachuk believes it’s a situation that warrants serious monitoring.
“We need to be constantly vigilant about how we’re interacting with people, and watching the trends in the coming days.”