First Nations concerned that crowded housing creates greater risk of coronavirus exposure

Northern Manitoba MP says more COVID-19 testing should be done in the region

Concerns about COVID-19 testing procedures and the ability of First Nations to abide by public health recommendations to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus have been raised by a Member of Parliament and a First Nations representative in Northern Manitoba.

Churchill-Keewatinook Aski NDP MP Niki Ashton wrote a letter to Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen April 1 saying that public health coronavirus testing protocols are leading to people who think they may have been exposed to COVID-19 being denied tests.

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I am writing to you on behalf of constituents who have reached out expressing serious concern about the lack of testing being conducted in Flin Flon and our North,” wrote Ashton. “There must be expanded testing available immediately given that a first case was confirmed and, as has been acknowledged by your government, we are in the phase of community transmission. Over the last three days I have been contacted by multiple people who are either symptomatic or are concerned they may have been exposed to the virus given their proximity to the confirmed case on certain dates. I am very concerned to hear that even though Health Links is directing people to get tested, that they are then being turned away at the testing site. Some of these people seeking testing are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, others have loved ones who are vulnerable.”

The family of a woman in the Flin Flon area posted on Facebook that she had tested positive for COVID-19 a day before the first confirmed cased in the Northern Regional Health Authority areas was announced by the provincial government. A second confirmed case in the north was announced April 2, but the location of the case was not given. Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said at an April 2 press conference that only people who have been in contact with a known case or have a relevant travel history and are showing symptoms are being tested right now.

“We must take every precaution necessary to keep people and our communities safe,”Ashton wrote. “This includes testing. We know jurisdictions that have implemented expanded testing have fared better than others. I urge your government to immediately respond to the urgent need for testing in Flin Flon and across our North. This is about saving lives.”

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), a political advocacy organization that represents 26 Northern Manitoba First Nations, said in an April 2 press release that many of these communities are not adequately equipped to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and that their members can not even self-isolate as recommended if they have recently travelled or have symptoms similar to those of a COVID-19 infection because of a lack of housing.

The overall shortage of buildings in which we can set up field hospitals or self-isolation units is coming up on a daily basis as a concern for Northern First Nations,” said MKO Grand Chief Grand Chief Garrison Settee. “We are aware that the focus of all our partners is on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, however, we do need to pay attention to the lack of housing as it directly impacts our ability to follow public health advice designed to mitigate the impacts of the virus on the vulnerable citizens in our communities.”

It is common to have 10 or more people living in a two- or three-bedroom house in many of the communities MKO represents.

“Norway House has a number of members who live off reserve in urban areas. It makes sense they want to return to their home Nation at this time,” said Norway House Cree Nation Chief Larson Anderson. “While we wish to have our people come home, we also are expected to follow the provincial guidelines of self-isolating for 14 days. There is not enough room in most of our homes that would allow us to follow this measure. For decades, every government and their bureaucrats have known the lack of housing for First Nation people is a major crisis! We're not asking for mansions, we just want a warm home with no mould or leaky roofs, where our people can truthfully say thank you Canada!"

First Nations members are also concerned about the lack of space to set up COVID-19 testing centres. MKO says members of its First Nations do not want nursing stations used as testing centres because they fear it would increase the risk of people with other health concerns being exposed to the virus.

“MKO has been and will continue to push for spaces to provide COVID-19 tests well away from nursing stations,” said Settee. “One idea is to set up BluMed tents to create field hospitals in our communities. The bottom line is we need to take all steps we can to protect the most vulnerable from being exposed to the virus. It would be useful if all First Nations could have testing sites set up away from nursing stations.”

Settee also supports the calls of First Nations chiefs close to Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask generating station to suspend construction while the pandemic continues.

Our First Nations that live within proximity of Keeyask are worried that there might be some risks,” Settee said in a YouTube video March 31. “We have advocated that Keeyask would limit, if not all employees, as much as possible to limit the number of workers because that creates a greater risk to people who are going in and out of these communities.”

Manitoba Hydro reduced operations at Keeyask March 21. 

A spokesperson for the Crown corporation told the Thompson Citizen March 24 that anyone arriving at the site after that date without prior authorization is being turned away at the gate and not allowed to enter, while delivery vehicles bringing required materials and supplies are being unloaded by on-site Keeyask staff, with the drivers required to remain in their vehicles. For smaller items, arrangements are made for the delivery person to leave them at the gate, where on-site employees can retrieve them without the need for person-to-person contact.

As of March 21, any worker remaining at Keeyask who is referred for medical treatment offsite as a precaution must be tested for COVID-19 prior to leaving, with the sample sent to Winnipeg. Before that, whether people transported from the site for health reasons were tested was up to medical staff in their home communities.

There have not been any presumptive or confirmed cases of COVID-19 among any workers at Keeyask, said Hydro’s spokesperson March 24.

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