When Hailey Cordell, manager of a bar and grill in Thompson, drives to and from work, she still sees the parking lots of big-box stores and Liquor Marts packed with customers.
"Honestly, everything still seems the same, everyone’s still doing whatever they do," she said.
This worries her, and for good reason: Thompson has one of a handful of COVID-19 outbreaks in the northern part of the province.
Despite the packed shops, the atmosphere in the city is slowly changing, Cordell said, and she’s noticed some of the lackadaisical response from residents has been replaced by fear.
"You can tell more people are getting scared now, because there’s so many outbreaks happening around here," she said.
The uptick in positive cases in the northern health region has been sudden and severe, with Thursday’s reported case count in the area (139) being nearly double that of Winnipeg (75).
Four of the five health districts in Manitoba with the most active cases of COVID-19 are in the northern region. Island Lake tops the list, with 355 active cases in a population reported by the province to be 9,008. This puts it at 3,941 active cases per 100,000 people. In comparison, downtown Winnipeg, the only district in Winnipeg to make the top five list, has 272 cases per 100,000 people.
Deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal connected the spike in northern cases to outbreaks that are centralized in Lynn Lake, Thompson and Garden Hill First Nation.
Some cases are tied to the spread of the virus among members of large households, and Atwal said there is an effort from "a multitude of partners" to mitigate the spread in those communities.
"From a Lynn Lake perspective and a Thompson perspective, it seems like the case and contact investigations are going well and people are being supported," he said.
"I think case numbers will probably go up a little bit before they come down."
Atwal said information would be made available related to contact tracing in northern First Nations communities within two days.
One of those communities is Cross Lake, where there are 48 active cases and 13 off-reserve cases. Cases have slowly increased in the community, which is around 520 km north of Winnipeg. Chief David Monias attributes the circumstance to holiday gatherings.
"Most of our cases were related to the scattering from the holidays, and we said this was to be expected," he said. "The job now is to identify these people and isolate them."
A shortage of nurses has exacerbated the outbreak in Cross Lake. Monias said despite being told by Health Canada that the community would receive 16 nurses to deal with the spread of COVID-19, currently only four nurses are stationed in the First Nation, which has a population of 5,392.
"We’ve always been short of nurses, it’s just even more now during the holiday season, nobody wants to come and work," he said.
The community lockdown, which began before the holidays, will continue, but in an attempt to curb "cabin fever," people will be allowed to go on drives, Monias said. Cross Lake will remain closed to visitors.
"We’ve always been short of nurses, it’s just even more now during the holiday season, nobody wants to come and work." — Cross Lake Chief David Monias
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, who oversees health care on reserves, said he expects even more outbreaks.
"We've seen recent outbreaks in remote and isolated communities and recent increases in cases that are both alarming and concerning. We must anticipate and prepare for more in the coming weeks and months," Miller said Wednesday on Parliament Hill.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee said MKO was waiting on Indigenous Services Canada and the Northern Region Health Authority for specifics as to what is driving the increase in cases in the northern region.
"First Nations leadership have always been worried about the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 virus would have on our communities once it arrived in northern Manitoba," he said. "We have multiple ongoing systemic issues we need to address that exacerbate the impact of COVID-19 on our citizens."
In the town of Lynn Lake, support has begun to arrive from the province – Canadian Task Force 4, under the direction of the Office of the Fire Commissioner, arrived to provide support, including delivering groceries to people who are self-isolating.
Nearly one in four residents of Lynn Lake, which is 320 kilometres northwest of Thompson, has tested positive for COVID-19.
On Wednesday, out of 127 confirmed cases, 121 were considered active.
The "reality of the situation" has hit home in the town, which may declare a local state of emergency and institute a mandatory curfew in an attempt to drive down cases, Lynn Lake chief administrative officer Tom Matus said Thursday.
"So if we do that, we would be expecting more help from the province," he said.
Matus said he "wouldn’t have any issue" should the province decide to lift code red restrictions in other health regions but not the northern area, and said he believed the people of Lynn Lake would support it as well.
“It just feels like no one really cares about what’s happening, and that’s why we keep getting outbreaks, and it keeps getting worse." — Hailey Cordell, manager of a bar and grill in Thompson
"I think people are resigned to the fact that there’s an outbreak, and that they should be vigilant and staying safe," he said. "So more people are being compliant."
Back in Thompson, Cordell, who has worked throughout the pandemic, called it a "stressful" ordeal, more so now as cases begin to climb.
"It just feels like no one really cares about what’s happening, and that’s why we keep getting outbreaks, and it keeps getting worse," she said.
There were 79 active cases of COVID-19 in the health district that includes Thompson and Mystery Lake as of Thursday. Cordell is crossing her fingers that people will begin to take restrictions more seriously.
"I honestly am not sure. It’s gotten this bad, and some people still don’t really care. Maybe a little bit of people will start being more cautious, but I don’t know," she said. "It’s hard to tell."
— With files from Dylan Robertson
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.