Relief efforts are under way in Kashechewan First Nation in northern Ontario as authorities scramble to control a recent surge in COVID-19 cases that has put the tiny Indigenous community into complete lockdown.
Isolation tents are being set up to prevent the spread of disease and Canadian Rangers were on the ground supplying food and water to the affected families, the nation’s chief said.
There are no hospitals and doctors in Kashechewan First Nation, so residents have been airlifted out to Kingston, Ont., for treatment.
“We’re getting some nurses — total 15 of them — and we’re getting maybe three or five paramedics,” Kashechewan First Nation Chief Leo Friday told Global News in an interview on Thursday.
“We took the initiative to lock down the community last night, and it’s still in effect,” he said, adding that the measures will remain in place for another 10 days.
On Wednesday, Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) reported nine new COVID-19 infections in Kashechewan for a total of 210 active cases among a population of 1,800.
Arlene Nakogee’s four-year-old daughter and six-year-old niece tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, but did not show any symptoms.
The 22-year-old mother said the outbreak has “badly affected” the community.
“We’re just stuck at home, just being frustrated,” she told Global News.
Cases in Kashechewan account for nearly one-quarter of the 880 active infections roiling Canada’s Indigenous reserves, the latest federal data showed.
Nakogee expressed her grievance with the Ontario government for not caring.
“The province is not doing their job right,” she said.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Tuesday vowed that his government would ensure young people of Kashechewan aged 12 to 17 would be vaccinated quickly.
“We’re going to be up there. We’re going to support them in any way we can, and we’ll make sure that happens immediately,” he said during a June 15 news conference.
Adults in Indigenous communities have been prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine in Ontario, but many children and teenagers have not been vaccinated yet.
Friday said most of the cases are among young people under the age of 17. As of Wednesday, 92 children aged 12 years and under had been infected and there were 37 cases among the 13-17 age group, he confirmed.
“It’s really concerning for everybody, especially the parents and the adults that are raising their babies.
“I’m afraid that something worse might come in … we’re really, really afraid.”
Peter Lazarus, 56, who was fully vaccinated with two doses of Moderna, got COVID-19 along with three other members in his household, including two teenage boys.
“The biggest concern is people that are crowded in their homes,” said Lazarus, who is the housing director of the First Nations Housing Department.
Experts believe crowded homes, blamed on a chronic housing shortage, along with a lack of places to isolate have allowed for the rampant spread of COVID-19.
“There’s not enough housing. There’s not enough places to quarantine. This is problematic,” said Angela Mashford-Pringle, assistant professor of Indigenous health at the University of Toronto.
She fears the current outbreak could have “long-term effects” on the First Nation community already suffering from inadequate housing and a lack of clean water.
“I don’t think the government has done enough,” Mashford-Pringle told Global News, adding that the housing issue needs to be addressed more broadly.
–With files from Global News’ Heather Yourex-West, Daina Goldfinger and The Canadian Press