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40 cases of confirmed COVID-19 in First Nation communities

There were 40 cases of confirmed COVID-19 in First Nation communities on reserves as of Thursday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Friday.
Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller speaks at a press conference on COVID-19 at West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

There were 40 cases of confirmed COVID-19 in First Nation communities on reserves as of Thursday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Friday. 

Miller said monies from a $305 million fund for pandemic planning and response will start flowing in short order to First Nations across the country.

Communities will have wide discretion on how the funds are used to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease, Miller said. And he expects more supports to come.

“It is very much the beginning of the financial conversation and the resource conversation. There are some things that money cannot buy that we’re prepared to deploy into communities,” Miller said.

That could include isolation units or personal protective equipment, Miller said, “which becomes even more important depending on the remoteness of the community and the resources.”

“We know more support will be needed,” Miller said.

The Blueberry River First Nation, roughly an hour's drive north of Fort St. John, confirmed Thursday that one of its members has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Family has said that member was Tracy Paquette, a worker at the Peace Villa long-term care home in Fort St. John. She is in hospital in Prince George.

Blueberry River has set up road blocks and security to control access in and out of the community. Non-residents are not allowed to enter, and otherwise ordered not to travel to the community. Self-isolation orders are also in place for those who may had close contact, and businesses may be required to submit a COVID safety plan.

"This directive is a vital part of protecting BRFN in light of the discovery of a single confirmed case of Covid-19 in the community," Blueberry River said in an April 9 release.

Chief Marvin Yahey said the band has been deploying its pandemic plan for several weeks.

"Following the best available medical guidance, BRFN will take every measure possible to protect the community and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the community and surrounding jurisdictions," said Chief Yahey.

"We are now taking more restrictive measures in light on the case that was confirmed today. We will be working with provincial and federal health officals, the RCMP, neighbouring jurisdictions, as well as our internal team to take a unified and co-ordinated approach to this issue which threatens our uniquely vulnerable community."

Northern Health deferred comment to the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), which declined comment Friday. Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman said she has reached out to Chief Yahey to offer any assistance the city may have.

Miller said contact tracing and self-isolation is crucial to controlling an outbreak.

“I believe Blueberry River has been very aggressive in doing some contact tracing in identifying whether someone is symptomatic or not, asking them to self isolate,” Miller said. “Those are the basic key protocols that are shown to affect the spread of COVID when the first cases are identified in the community.”

He added, “We speak of some modest success in some communities where there has been one outbreak and it’s been stomped out immediately, but that is only through aggressive profiling and contacting and isolation measures.”

Miller said the FNHA is to be distributing personal protective equipment, “ensuring that equipment gets out, whether it’s faceshields, masks, gowns, gloves, hand sanitizers into communities.”

“With the extent that’s not available from them, the Government of Canada will obviously supply, with an aspired 24-hour to 48 hour turnaround time on the orders depending on volume, all in the spirit and desire to get resources into communities as fast as possible.”

There were 21,243 total cases in Canada as of April 10, including 1,370 in B.C.

The onset of COVID-19 in First Nation communities will depend on their remoteness and proximity to urban centres, Miller said.

Each community will have its own unique needs, Miller added, saying that Canada has an opportunity “to get ahead of the curve and put in place measures that have been identified by looking at other countries and the ability to adapt and react to remoteness.”

Federal public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said this week that First Nation communities are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their distance from and access to resources, and underlying health conditions.

On Friday, Dr. Tom Wong, Chief Medical Officer of Public Health, said eliminating physical contact, maintaining social distancing, and following self-isolation orders remain key to preventing the spread of the virus, as does avoiding non-essential travel. 

“It is so important to not let the virus into the community,” Dr. Wong said. “If it gets into the community, try to achieve a circle around the community so it doesn’t spread any further.”

Dr. Wong also suggested people quit smoking, even if for just a few months. That will help control blood pressure, and keep lungs healthy and less vulnerable to the virus, especially for those with underlying health conditions.

“This virus attacks the respiratory system, so you want your defence system in your lungs as healthy as possible to fight this germ so you get less complications,” Dr. Wong said.

This is a developing story.

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