WHAT began as a few cases of COVID-19 among school kids in Norway House has quickly swelled into a significant outbreak involving more than 170 people, driven by crowded classrooms and inadequate housing on the northern First Nation.

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WHAT began as a few cases of COVID-19 among school kids in Norway House has quickly swelled into a significant outbreak involving more than 170 people, driven by crowded classrooms and inadequate housing on the northern First Nation.

Chief Larson Anderson said the number of infections in the community 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg had been slowly escalating since September when children returned to school.

It’s suspected the virus was introduced from outside the First Nation at about the same time students returned to class, Anderson said.

"With all these classrooms being overcrowded and then having these kids go there, one or two of them got it, and it became a battleground there to try to contain," he said. "It was certainly disappointing to have it at the school level."

Not long afterward, Anderson said parents and adults began to come down with symptoms. In the past week, 10 to 25 people were testing positive each day, and the positivity rate was "through the roof."

"We were finding that we had to lock down households because they’re so close together and most places only have one washroom. So it’s really been a struggle to keep individuals safe," Anderson said.

Schools in Norway House have been closed for two weeks. For the past week, residents have had to abide by a curfew while recreation centres remain closed, visits between households are restricted, and shopping is limited to one person per household.

Testing and contact tracing continues but local resources are limited, Anderson said.

Additional support from the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch and other stakeholders has been requested as "there are some things beyond our control that they must assist with," he said.

"In this type of a battle every hour matters. We started getting hit late last week, and into the weekend, and people tried to do what they could, but honestly I think it could have been better support," he said.

However, the local health team is urgently working day and night to get the outbreak under control, he said.

"It was really daunting. But now, we finally got a decent number (Wednesday), so the lockdown is starting to take effect," he said.

On Thursday, Norway House reported 84 active cases, 87 recoveries and the death of a female community member. Children and adults in their 20s and 40s make up a high number of cases. Anderson said a good proportion of cases involves people who were fully immunized.

At last count, about 76 per cent of eligible people in Norway House were fully vaccinated, Anderson said. The community has a population of about 6,500.

Anderson called on the federal government to address the housing shortage in his community, and other First Nations across the country, which escalates the risk of the novel coronavirus on reserves.

"That would address any ongoing problems far beyond anything else government could ever do," he said.

Seventeen First Nations in Manitoba had active COVID-19 cases as of Thursday, said the First Nations Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team.

Last week, the group warned its ability to deploy outbreak support would not be the same as in earlier waves of COVID-19 because health-care staff have largely returned to their regular roles.

"We continue to see more spread related to gatherings, particularly indoor gatherings, where we hear afterwards that people aren’t masking or there was lots of people there," said Dr. Marcia Anderson, public health lead of the response team. "That provides conditions for this virus to spread very quickly."

Mathias Colomb Cree Nation Chief Lorna Bighetty said household visits likely led to a recent outbreak in her community, 700 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

As of Thursday, there were 50 active cases in the community, also known as Pukatawagan, and 154 recoveries. Ninety people were still in self-isolation, Bighetty said. Provincial data shows 51.1 per cent of eligible residents in the Mathias Colomb district were fully vaccinated.

Last week, the community of more than 2,200 was moved to code red on the pandemic response system with public gatherings prohibited and residents required to stay home or wear a mask when outside.

"We find that numbers are going down really fast because we know what to do, we know how to take care of it," Bighetty said.

Unlike Norway House, Pukatawagan had been hit with a significant outbreak in March and the military was called in to assist.

Local care providers have so far been able to keep up with demand for testing and contact tracing, she added. She also noted a number of infections have been among people who were immunized.

"At the moment we’re OK. We’re doing good," she said.

But Pukatawagan has also been dealing with recurring power outages — at least four in the past four weeks — which have hurt the community’s ability to provide care, Bighetty said.

The outages have been due to weather and downed trees, Manitoba Hydro said.

However, efforts of Pukatawagan residents to stay home and mask up have helped to keep the outbreak from escalating, Bighetty said.

"People are very co-operative and they’re very concerned because of their kids. They don’t want their kids to get sick," she said.

"They say ‘You don’t have to tell me twice. We know how COVID is in our community. We’re staying home.’"

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.