Lack of housing helping COVID-19 spread and leaving some people homeless in Cross Lake, says chief

A second large-scale outbreak of COVID-19 in Cross Lake and Pimicikamak Cree Nation (PCN) is putting stress on the community and its resources, which prompted PCN Chief David Monias to appeal to the federal government to send in military help.

Monias said during an online press conference organized by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) on Feb. 16 that the spread of the virus is exacerbated by housing conditions in the First Nation. There were 167 active cases of COViD-19 in the Cross Lake/Pimicikamak health district as of Feb. 18, according to provincial government date posted online.

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More than 30 households in PCN were affected by the outbreak as of Tuesday. The provincial government instituted stricter public health orders in the health district on Feb. 13, banning all gatherings and requiring non-essential businesses to close, among other things.

“We have a lot of overcrowding and lack of housing in our community so when one family gets affected the numbers are normally high because there’s quite a few people in the home,” Monias said. “When this started we said it’s going to be devastating for First Nations in the long run because of the overcrowding and lack of housing in the community.”

PCN employees are sometimes working from 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. to as late as 2 a.m., Monias said, since the First Nation still has all its regular duties to perform as well as the response to the pandemic, which he estimates takes up as much as 60 per cent of their time.

“We’ve decided to ask for help from the government and send in the military to come help us out,” Monias said.

Another problem caused by the pandemic is people being left without a place to stay when family members don’t want to let them into their homes out of concern for their own safety.

“It creates homelessness,” said Monias, noting that that Cross Lake Inn is full as is the school gymnasium, which has 40 cots for people who are isolating. “Normally you don’t see that because everybody takes everybody in."

Dr. Michael Routledge, medical advisor to MKO’s health organization Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin (KIM), says conditions in First Nations and some Northern communities are keeping case numbers high even as they fall in most of the province.

“We’re seeing reducing levels of reported COVID cases and test positivity provincewide,” he said. “Unfortunately in the north our test positivity rates have remained quite high. Thompson as well is seeing a fair number of cases. With the housing situation what we’ve seen in a number of communities is that a couple of cases turns into a large number of cases very quickly. It makes it doubly difficult to try and control some of these outbreaks. There’s obviously some still troubling signs in terms of test positivity and communities that are struggling.”

MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said that in PCN – his home First Nation – where poor internet prevents online educations from being possible, as well as in other northern First Nations, the pandemic is having a serious impact on the mental health of children and youth.

"A lot of them have gone through many challenges,” he said. “There’s a lot of mental and emotional impacts on our youth.”

MKO's mobile crisis response team is still available to assist communities with mental health crises, said program manager Justin Courchene, but its services ave changed somewhat as a result of the pandemic, with the number of days team members can spend in a community reduced from three to two.

“That’s just to ensure the safety of not only the team but of the community members,” he said.

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