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Two new cases in Eeyou Istchee; Cree leadership chooses caution over rapid reopening

BY Dan Isaac May 1, 2020

After nearly three weeks without new infections, the Cree Health Board reported two more confirmed COVID-19 cases in Eeyou Istchee April 27, bringing the total in the territory to eight. 

The virus has infected three people in Chisasibi, three in Nemaska and two more in Waswanipi.  

Of the eight, two are considered recovered (one in Nemaska and one in Chisasibi). According to Jason Coonishish, the CHB coordinator of Prehospital and Emergency Measures, several of the remaining patients are well on their way to recovery. 

Though Coonishish also noted that there had been two hospitalizations due to COVID-19. One of those hospitalized is a Cree teenager, whose case was so serious that he was placed in the intensive care unit. 

Since then, however, the teen’s health improved, and the patient has now been moved to a regular room. 

To date, there have been 260 COVID-19 tests carried out by the CHB; 240 were negative and 12 are awaiting results. The CHB’s contact-tracing team has investigated more than 2,600 individuals. 

Even though there was a lull in confirmed cases, contact-tracing measures have remained a constant.

“On a daily basis the numbers of tests will fluctuate as people present themselves with symptoms to the clinics,” said Dr. Colleen Fuller, a public health physician with the contact-tracing team. 

“As soon as we know someone has been tested, the contact-tracing process begins before their results come back and their close contacts are directed to self-isolate.” 

The rapid response is key to keeping the infection numbers so low in Eeyou Istchee. 

Fuller went on to explain that the two new confirmed cases were low risk to the community. Even though they had been passengers on an airplane, she said, they were wearing masks and followed social-distancing protocols while on board. 

Fuller also said that it was likely that they had been infected in a Montreal hospital while receiving necessary treatment for another condition.  

In her April 29 update, Cree Health Board Chairperson Bella Petawabano noted that, “all [Cree COVID-19] cases to date are among people who caught the disease outside Eeyou Istchee.”

Petawabano also disclosed that her husband, Buckley Petawabano, had contracted COVID-19 and is now in hospital. He had been living in a long-term care home in Montreal for many years following a stroke. Despite her husband’s diagnosis, Petawabano said she will continue in her duties as chairperson. 

The nature of how the two new confirmed cases in Eeyou Istchee contracted COVID-19 has sparked a discussion similar to those taking place around the world. That is, how do smaller, isolated communities mitigate risks when some essential services are only available in hard-hit urban centres? 

Coonishish and Fuller both explained that all but essential trips to Montreal for health care have been postponed. Fuller elaborated that clinics everywhere have scaled back services, turning toward tele-medicine for patient interactions. 

“Montreal has over 12,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19,” Coonishish noted. “We only have 25 patients in the Espresso Hotel right now, which is a fraction of how many we usually have. But we also don’t want to jeopardize anyone’s health.”

Petawabano reiterated that all patients and escorts traveling to Montreal for health care are required to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return to Eeyou Istchee. 

Meanwhile, the provincial government is looking to loosen protocols implemented to slow the pace of the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel restrictions to certain regions were to be lifted in the first week of May while elementary schools and daycares will begin reopening May 11. 

The Cree Nation Government is planning a more measured approach. 

“Even if Quebec removes checkpoints the Cree will maintain theirs until the local leadership feels it’s safe to remove them,” said CNG Executive Director Bill Namagoose. “The Cree Nation leadership will choose a logical, progressive opening that is tied to the capacity of the healthcare system to respond to current and future needs. Now is not the time to put at risk what the Cree Nation has worked so hard to hold back.”

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Dan Isaac is a Mi'kmaq and Mohawk journalist with a BA in Creative writing from Concordia University. He’s been writing for the Nation since 2016.