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Health ᒥᔪᐱᒫᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

How Eeyou Istchee is preparing for COVID-19

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 20, 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down countries around the world with startling speed, the Cree Nation Government is trying to reassure people that there are – at press time – no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Eeyou Istchee.

To keep it that way, several strict preventative measures have recently been introduced to align with the most up-to-date advice of regional and international health experts. These social distancing initiatives intend to “flatten the curve” – slowing the rate of infection as much as possible so disease cases remain at a manageable level for healthcare providers.

“I would like to reassure the people that we will do everything we can to guide us through this crisis,” said CNG Executive Director Bill Namagoose. “Follow protocols and don’t do anything irrational. We encourage communities to keep essential services running.”

Namagoose told the Nation that they had changed the disease’s name in Cree to “yehyewaspinewin e ashu-miyitunaniwich”, which translates as “respiratory illness that is given from one to another.” The previous name translated as “the disease that is flying around in the wind”, which falsely implied you could catch it walking down the road.

Correcting these kinds of inaccuracies are important because there is dangerous misinformation spreading on social media. The Cree Health Board recommends checking reliable sources to prevent spreading anxiety and panic.

“Protecting others and being mindful of the responsibility we all have toward each other is very important in these times,” said CHB Public Health Director Dr. Faisca Richer. “We will be very soon putting together a 1-800 hotline for people with any questions about the virus. In the meantime, you can go on creehealth.org.”

COVID-19 is not spread through the air but by direct contact with the cough or sneeze droplets of an infected person. It can also be caught by touching your eyes, nose or mouth after contact with a contaminated surface. As the virus may survive on surfaces for several hours, it’s important to maintain disinfectant procedures and to limit contact with others and public objects.

Proper hygiene reduces the risk of transmission, especially frequent handwashing with soap and water. Cough or sneeze into your bent elbow and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands. It’s recommended to avoid unnecessary gatherings, physical contact when greeting someone and to keep two metres distance between individuals.

“It’s everyone’s social responsibility to follow the precautionary measures that are given to you,” asserted CHB chairperson Bella Petawabano. “We need all of your help at this time. We ask that you help us to help you.”

Like SARS and the common cold, COVID-19 is in the coronavirus family, causing symptoms including fever, coughing, difficulty breathing and pneumonia. While 8 out of 10 cases report milder symptoms, it has been more often fatal among Elders and those with chronic medical conditions.

The CHB began preparing its pandemic response soon after respiratory infections began breaking out of Wuhan, China, in December. Within weeks of the first cases, the virus had reached neighbouring countries and soon became a global health emergency.

By early March, Europe had become the epicentre of the pandemic and the first Canadian COVID-19 death had occurred. At press time, there were more than 840 confirmed cases in Canada and 121 in Quebec – 10 times the number from the previous week.

“We’re watching numbers internationally and in the province very closely,” said Richer. “We’re preparing the clinics and the services for people who need them in case there’s a situation. We’re still early enough that these strict measures will prevent widespread transmission in the country.”

Control measures in Eeyou Istchee follow the Quebec government’s lead, with all schools closed until at least March 30, international travel suspended and indoor events with over 50 people banned. Daycares will stay open for workers in essential services. As borders close worldwide, those returning from abroad are instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“The Cree Health Board was actually the first in the country to do that,” noted Jason Coonishish, CHB coordinator of Prehospital and Emergency Measures. “We had two employees who came back from China in mid-February, finished their quarantine and are doing very well now. Throughout the territory, they’ve cancelled events from the skidoo race to hockey tournaments, even the health conference [in Chisasibi].”

Cree leadership will convene by conference call every second morning so chiefs can share the latest updates with their communities that afternoon. Postsecondary students returning to their communities are advised to watch for symptoms and contact Elders or other vulnerable community members by telephone.

“I would like to make it very clear that if you have symptoms you have to go to the closest clinic,” Richer asserted. “It’s important that you don’t travel home before going to the clinic. We have found alternative places in each community so the [infected] person can be sent there and not be a risk to their family.”

With overcrowded housing conditions creating a greater risk of widespread transmission, all communities have agreed to provide isolated units for self-quarantine. The CHB has been coordinating emergency responses with police, fire departments and first responders to ensure the safety of both patients and health services.

“We developed a video for how frontline workers are to put on and dispose of protective equipment,” said Coonishish. “I explained the protocols for how it’s going to work: the nurse gets a call from a patient that shows all the symptoms for COVID-19. Before the first responders go pick them up, they have to go to the clinic first, dress up with protective equipment with the nurse and they all go to the house to pick up the patient.”

While Nunavik’s political leaders are “literally closing the border” to their northern communities, Eeyou Istchee will continue to follow national and provincial protocols to contain the threat. Those with medical appointments down south should consult with their CMC – the CHB is working with Air Creebec and Hotel Espresso to ensure safe travel arrangements.

To wait out the unfolding social disruptions, the best travel plan right now may be to pursue traditional activities out on the land.

“Being on the land might be the safest place,” Namagoose said. “The more isolated you can be, the better. Take a break.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.