First Nations people are being urged to get tested for COVID-19 if they are experiencing symptoms.
Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to infectious disease such as the novel coronavirus due to pre-existing health outcomes and socio-economic conditions.
No First Nation communities in Manitoba have reported cases of COVID-19, but medical professionals are nevertheless cautioning them to remain alert, even as the province has plans to reopen non-essential services and businesses.
Marcia Anderson, a Cree-Anishinaabe doctor who works in public health in Manitoba, said one way to keep on top of the situation is by increasing the number of people going in for testing.
"If you don’t have symptoms, there is no reason for you to be tested," she said.
"If you do have symptoms, that could be related to COVID-19, you can call the nursing station or hospital and get instructions on how to come
in and be tested for COVID-19."
Symptoms include fever, shortness of breath, a new cough or worsening of a chronic cough, a sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches and GI gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea or loss of taste or smell.
A similar message came from Tom Wong, chief medical officer of public health with Indigenous Services Canada, who is closely watching developments at First Nations elsewhere in Canada.
While Manitoba First Nations are at zero cases, First Nations in other provinces are experiencing outbreaks of the illness. Wong said the next two weeks would be a watershed moment.
As of April 30, Indigenous Services Canada was aware of 131 confirmed positive COVID-19 tests on First Nations reserves in provinces — 33 in British Columbia, 21 in Alberta, 15 in Saskatchewan, 32 in Ontario and 30 in Quebec. Nunavut reported its first case this week in Pond Inlet.
"We want everybody to get the message that the community, the public health department, ought to be emphasizing physical distancing, washing your hands, not gathering in crowds, including young people, because young people sometimes think they are not vulnerable," said Wong.
"Many factors contribute to this reality, including lack of housing, overcrowding, lack of clean water, limited health services," the Southern Chiefs’ Organization has stated.
That’s why in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, stringent measures to keep the virus out were put in place, such as shutting down territorial borders. In Manitoba and elsewhere in Canada, some First Nations have closed their communities, going so far as to erect blockades.
Anderson said it’s really important to know if and when COVID-19 cases start in the community "so that communities can be best prepared to respond with the public health management and the primary-care needs."
She also said knowing there are no cases because of negative test results is also helpful.
"That’s important, so that as the province starts its restart strategy that community leaders also have the information that they need to decide on whether to loosen or to tighten the public health measures that they put in place, as well," she said.
Wong said it’s too early to tell which way the so-called curve will go in First Nations.
"We are working with the communities, with the provinces and territories, very closely to shut the door on transmission. You’ve heard about the meat plant (in Alberta), for example. Those are some of the areas where workers from First Nation communities – they work there, then they come back to the community and unknowingly, because there’s an outbreak at those facilities, they bring back the virus to the community, which has happened," Wong said.
"What we are hoping to not see is an exponential increase. What we are hoping to see is the flattening of the curve and bending the curve."
Wong said First Nations have been successful in shutting down the entrance of the virus in their communities, "including the lockdown of communities and being very strict about isolation, not gathering in crowds."
Anderson cautioned calm.
"One thing that’s really important to remember as of this date in time is that if you were to have those symptoms like sore throat, new cough, fever, shortness of breath, as of right now it’s still more likely to be some other respiratory virus as opposed to COVID-19," she said.
"That being said, it’s still important that you take steps to protect yourself and your loved ones from passing on whatever it is that’s causing your symptoms. Your health-care team will work with you or discuss with you when you go in to be tested the best way to do that."
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.