Thunder Bay’s medical officer of health says the health unit has taken a number of steps aimed at protecting forest fire evacuees from Red Lake and Eabametoong First Nation from COVID-19.
Around 200 vulnerable residents of Eabametoong were scheduled to arrive in Thunder Bay yesterday to escape smoke and ash blowing into their community from the forest fire known as Nipigon 45. Over 50 people have arrived in Thunder Bay after fleeing Red Lake, which is being threatened by the Red Lake 49 fire.
Thunder Bay currently only has two active cases of COVID-19 in the city, and Dr. Janet DeMille said she was pleased to be hosting evacuees at a time when the city appears to be managing the virus well.
“However,” she added, “When we’re getting individuals… particularly from a First Nations community… who, you know, have at times very significant underlying health problems that could make them much more vulnerable with COVID… it is something that we need to be concerned about and manage that.”
Evacuees are being screened when they arrive in the city and are given information about what to do if they have symptoms, she said. They’re also being given face masks to wear when they go into indoor public places.
In addition, the evacuees are being housed in two hotels in the city. Family groups and other members of social bubbles are being housed together.
Those hotels were assessed prior to the evacuees’ arrival to ensure they had the capacity to host safely, she added.
Prior to the forest fires, the health unit had already been working with the hotels to help them implement safety measures related to COVID-19, DeMille said.
Those measures included providing more food in rooms and abandoning buffets.
DeMille has reached out to the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority for additional guidance on how to protect evacuees in Thunder Bay from COVID-19, she said.
Questions still exist around how to ensure that evacuees return to their communities safely, she said.
“This is a complicated situation,” DeMille said. “And, you know, it’s complicated at the best of times, but COVID adds another layer of challenge. But I certainly see, you know, there’s a lot of preparedness for this.”