The chief of a northern Manitoba First Nation where roughly one in five people has tested positive for COVID-19 says the military’s involvement needs to be ramped up to adequately address the growing crisis in the community.
The Canadian Armed Forces announced on Saturday it will soon be on hand to support the Shamattawa First Nation, where Chief Eric Redhead said there were 195 confirmed cases among the community’s approximately 1,300 people as of Sunday evening.
Redhead said the First Nation needs urgent help as cases in the community, about 745 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, have skyrocketed from only a few just two weeks ago. Dozens are now isolating at sites outside of the community and about 20 are in quarantine at the community’s gymnasium.
The six Canadian Rangers being sent to work with the community won’t be enough to get a handle on the situation, he said.
“That’s not what we’ve been requesting. We’ve been requesting medical personnel from the military — their nurses, their doctors — to help with contact tracing, to help with testing,” Redhead said.
“It’s too little, too late.”
With many families living in overcrowded homes and elders in the community contracting the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, the situation in the fly-in community has become dire and requires full military support, Redhead said.
Health teams in the community are testing as many people as they can but more members are getting sick or needing to isolate themselves because of exposure to the illness, he said.
Redhead said he asked the federal government for more help weeks ago.
“We need to act fast. It took over a week for the pandemic team to arrive.”
“I knew this was going to blow up because of the overcrowding in the homes. It was just a matter of time, and look where we are now. It’s really, really concerning.”
‘A matter of life and death’
Katherine Redhead, who is from Shamattawa but lives in Winnipeg, said she’s worried about her family living on the First Nation.
“I’m just really praying that my family members will stay safe, and the ones that are sick will pull through and have a speedy recovery and just Godspeed that this virus will leave the community,” she said.
Several people in her family have gotten sick with COVID-19, including her 81-year-old aunt, who’s taking care of a one-year-old who has also tested positive for the illness.
Both have been flown to Winnipeg to self-isolate in a hotel, she said.
Niki Ashton, MP for Churchill—Keewatinook Aski, said the federal government needs to listen to what people in the community are saying is needed to combat the spread of the virus.
“The chief and the leadership of the community have been sounding the alarm for days. They knew that the spread was far greater than what the initial numbers [suggested],” she said.
“They also know how vulnerable their community members are. Shamattawa’s been dealing with an outbreak of tuberculosis over the last number of months… [It’s] a disease that we hardly ever hear about in Canada, and yet Shamattawa is struggling with that.”
Ashton said the government needs to build on the military aid that has already been promised to help get the spread under control.
“It is a matter of life and death,” she said. “Shamattawa needs all the help it can get right now.”
Redhead said people in the community are frustrated and afraid for themselves and their families as more test positive.
And as those supporting people in isolation are themselves being forced to isolate in greater numbers, he’s worried about what will happen if the community doesn’t get more outside help.
“How are we going to get food to the people who are isolating? How are we going to cook for the members isolating in the gymnasium? This is really a major concern for us right now,” he said.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better, and I’m praying that we don’t lose any members.”