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Covid outbreaks appear in several communities as mass vaccinations begin

BY Ben Powless Jan 30, 2021

As Covid-19 vaccination clinics began operating across Eeyou Istchee, an outbreak of infections pushed all nine communities back to Phase 1 of deconfinement. 

As of January 20, the Cree Health Board was reporting 62 active Covid cases in Eeyou Istchee, including at least two Elders, and a case in a community member living outside the territory. The outbreaks were believed to have begun with social gatherings in Chibougamou, Ouje-Bougoumou and Mistissini. Additional cases have been confirmed in Whapmagoostui and Chisasibi. 

The CHB’s contact tracing team was investigating 727 contacts and testing 597 people as of press time. Health officials said the threat was considered limited since the contact-tracing team had advised people to self-isolate. 

The health authority said in a statement that it is disappointing that “people are not cooperating with [health staff] or worse disrespecting them and cursing at them when the team is working so hard.” Cree leaders also announced that all non-essential travel between communities is now restricted and subject to the 14-day mandatory self-isolation.

To prevent the spread and allow contact tracing to be completed, all communities are back to Phase 1 of deconfinement. This prohibits all gatherings, indoors or outdoors. Public buildings can be accessed only be appointment. Access to each community by non-members is allowed only for essential services.

The CHB said that evidence pointed to Covid being spread in visits and private gatherings in homes and camps. The Cree School Board also suspended all in-class instruction until further notice. 

The only regions considered safe for travel were Region 10 (Nord-du-Québec), Region 17 (Nunavik) and Region 18 (Eeyou Istchee). Northern Ontario was moved to “unsafe” status as of January 12. Chibougamau is deemed safe for essential travel for residents of Mistissini, Ouje-Bougoumou, Nemaska and Waswanipi. Travel to Mistissini, Ouje-Bougoumou, Nemaska and Waswanipi is now considered unsafe for members of other communities.

In Mistissini, Meechum L’Inter Marché manager Steve Rombotis said that the store reduced the number of clients allowed inside the store to 10, down from 25. The store is also limiting its hours from 8am-6pm and initiating a sign-in sheet and questionnaire for everyone entering. Rombotis said community members can check the store’s Facebook page for further changes that are expected. 

Cree leaders reminded community members that from January 9 to February 8, all regions of Quebec outside of Nunavik and Eeyou Istchee are subject to an 8pm-to-5am curfew. Non-respect of the curfew could result in fines up to $6,000 for those without a valid reason. Some Cree community members have already received $1,550 fines. With the curfew, only essential businesses may remain open, while restaurants may open only for take-out or delivery. 

The Moderna vaccine, which arrived in Quebec January 14, was distributed to all Cree communities on January 16, with vaccination programs beginning that day. Updated local vaccination schedules and details are available online at creehealth.org/covid

CHB chairperson Bertie Wapachee said the vaccines are not a quick fix. “We are lucky to have had this kind of leadership in the fight against the pandemic. Our success, however, comes from the collaboration, dedication and teamwork of our frontline people, as well as the willingness of our Nation to follow strict protocols,” he said.

“The Cree Health Board has been working hard to prepare for this vaccination campaign, and we are grateful to be able to say: we are ready! I got vaccinated, and I encourage all our staff in the communities to do the same,” Wapachee added.

Along with his wife and adult children, Grand Chief Abel Bosum was vaccinated in Ouje-Bougoumou in mid-January. 

“The Cree Nation Government has full confidence in our health and social services in Eeyou Istchee to deliver a successful Covid vaccination campaign,” Bosum said in a statement. “Vaccination is an important first step toward being able to finally put this pandemic behind us as a Nation. We would like to thank frontline and emergency workers as well as community members who have sacrificed important events and activities for the well-being of their loved ones and neighbours.”

The CHB emphasized that the vaccinations did not mean the end of health measures as it may take months to immunize all members, meaning measures like physical distancing and wearing masks are still required. 

After the first week of the campaign, 4,363 people had received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine across all nine communities, with 1,360 doses delivered in Mistissini alone. The CHB said that the vaccine becomes effective between 72 hours and two weeks after the shot in order to achieve a 94% protection rate. A second dose is required to ensure long-term protection, however. The CHB confirmed that doses would be available for anyone over 18.

As the curfew began across Quebec, Premier François Legault called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ban all non-essential international travel. Quebec has seen its daily case count decline from over 3,000 to under 2,000 since the latest lockdown began after Christmas. Nonetheless, more than 50 people were dying each day from the virus.

Across Canada, there were nearly 720,000 cases confirmed, with recent highs of over 8,000 new cases a day, as the death total reached 18,265. 

Meanwhile over 684,000 vaccine doses were distributed nationally, even with news that Pfizer was slowing down production of its vaccine to accommodate upgrades in its manufacturing process. That slowdown pushed back Quebec’s short-term vaccination goals but was not expected to affect vaccine distribution in Eeyou Istchee, which is using a different vaccine from Moderna.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.