The numbers are staggering. On December 23, there were 23 active Covid cases in Eeyou Istchee. By December 31, that had risen to 319. By January 5, over 583 cases were confirmed – a 25-fold increase in two weeks.
The rapid spread of the Omicron variant across all Cree communities highlighted how contagious it is and showed why urgent measures needed to be taken across Eeyou Istchee, Quebec and the rest of Canada.
Cree authorities moved communities back into Phase One of pandemic measures, banning all indoor and outdoor gatherings of people who are not immediate household members. Travel within and to outside communities was banned, except for essential reasons. Only essential businesses were to remain open, including grocery stores, gas stations and repair services, as well as childcare services for essential workers.
The Cree Health Board expects the number of cases to continue growing, with confirmed community transmission. Due to the high number of cases and staff shortages, Public Health is no longer able to trace contacts between those infected.
Over 1,400 contacts were identified by January 3, but Public Health is now asking for those who test positive, or their close contacts, to notify people they had been in contact with, and to ask for family and friends to help with contact tracing.
Public Health said if a person is a contact of someone who tested positive, they should assume they are also positive and begin isolating for 10 days. Only if they have symptoms are they asked to contact the local clinic for a Covid test.
However, clinical PCR testing capacity has been exhausted. So CHB authorities can only use rapid tests, which are not considered as accurate. Thus, anyone with symptoms is asked to continue isolating for 10 days even if they receive a negative test result.
Because of the overwhelming volume of tests, health board’s focus now is to inform people who test positive. They ask that people waiting for results to let three days pass before calling to inquire about their status.
All of Quebec and Canada was determined to be an area of risk, outside of the Nord-du-Québec region. Anyone returning to Eeyou Istchee is required to isolate for 10 days, and to get a Covid test between Day 5 and Day 7 if they have fewer than three vaccination doses. For those with three doses, they are required to isolate for five days, with a Covid test on Day 5.
During an emergency livestream with the Cree Nation Government on December 31, Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty asked for the public’s help in working to contain the spread of the outbreak.
“We have to follow the measures,” she said. “The only way we can prevent further spread is to follow these protocols. Keep our children home, our youth home. It is one of the things that’s going to help us come out of this sooner.”
Cree School Board Chairperson Sarah Pash added that schools and adult education will begin online instruction January 12. This will continue until at least January 26, when measures will be re-evaluated. The Sabtuan Regional Vocational Learning Centre and its residence will stay closed until January 26.
Pash noted that many students are not fully vaccinated or hadn’t yet received their third dose. Additionally, all Cree School Board workers except for essential staff were to begin working remotely immediately, and all staff were to travel to their respective communities by January 11.
CHB public health physician Dr. Colleen Fuller said the surge in cases is “almost certainly” caused by the Omicron variant, but that tests are not sensitive enough to determine it definitively.
Public health officials continued to urge community members to get vaccinated. They said that emergency services, vaccines and testing were still available at community medical centres, but other services may be reduced due to staffing shortages.
Across Quebec, the government imposed a 10 pm-to-5 am curfew as the province broke new case records almost daily, including over 17,000 recorded January 1. The government closed indoor restaurant dining rooms and mandated that all non-essential businesses close on Sundays. The province suspended all indoor sports for more than two people of different households. Fines for those breaking curfew are between $1,000 and $6,000.
By January 5, 1,750 people in Quebec were hospitalized with Covid, more than double the number a week before. The number is far higher than announced provincial hospital capacity limits which were lowered because of staff shortages. Twelve children under the age of 10 were also admitted to hospitals on December 25 with Covid, the most since the pandemic started.
While 82% of Quebec’s population had received two vaccine doses, Premier François Legault said that the 10% who were completely unvaccinated represented half of those taking up hospital beds. The Canadian Armed Forces were being deployed to the province to assist with vaccinations amid widespread staffing shortages.
by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter