Manitoba First Nations disproportionately hit by COVID-19 with 11 deaths, 625 cases in past week

COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect First Nations people in Manitoba, with 625 new cases and 11 deaths related to the illness in the past week, officials said Friday.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs made the announcement during a weekly live-streamed news conference, where they provide updated numbers on the coronavirus in First Nations people and communities.

The latest data suggests First Nations people are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and Marcia Anderson, a doctor with the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Coordination Team, pointed to a range of trends that bear that out.

The secondary attack rate — a measure of how many people are likely to contract COVID-19 after being a close contact with a positive case — is about 16 per cent for all of Manitoba, she said. That means in the general population, roughly 16 in 100 close contacts tend to end up with the illness.

But in First Nations, that number is around 40 per cent, she said.

“That is a very staggering percentage and it’s important to have an appreciation of that,” said AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas.

Range of barriers

There are a number of explanations for that, including delays or barriers to accessing testing, or having more close contacts due to crowded housing situations in some remote communities, Dr. Anderson said.

There are 1,815 active COVID-19 cases among First Nations people in Manitoba — including 602 on reserve, and 1,213 involving First Nations people living off reserve — and 1,548 recoveries as of Friday.

Anderson also revealed the five-day test positivity rate — a rolling average of the tests that come back positive — is 20 per cent among First Nations people. It is 13.4 per cent Manitoba-wide.

She echoed Manitoba Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin in saying the health-care system is strained by the crush of new daily cases, and First Nations people are turning up in hospital beds at a higher rate than other groups.

As of Friday morning, 107 First Nations people were in hospital — almost a third of all Manitoba COVID-19 hospitalizations — and 23 were in intensive care, out of a total of 55 people in Manitoba in ICU with the illness.

Forty-seven First Nations people in the province have died so far from COVID-19.

The average age of First Nation people hospitalized due to the illness is around 50 right now, and the average age of First Nations deaths is around 66, said Anderson. Provincewide, the average age of those dying of COVID-19 is 83, she said.

Official Opposition Leader Wab Kinew said systemic racism, and not race, is at the root of why First Nations are hit harder by the virus. 

“It’s the fact that Indigenous people are more likely to have poor housing, less likely to have access to a family doctor and less likely to have access to clean drinking water,” the Manitoba NDP leader said.

“The same way that the pandemic revealed how we’ve ignored personal care homes over the past many years, the pandemic is now revealing how the lack of access to health care for First Nations people is a major issue that needs to be addressed.”

Pandemic exacerbates addictions

The pandemic has also further revealed the critical need for harm reduction supports for Indigenous folks living with addiction, said Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches at the virtual AMC news conference.

He wants governments to work together and start opening supervised consumption sites, including in his western Manitoba community. 

Long Plain declared a state of emergency due to addictions issues three years ago, he said, but the pandemic has only exacerbated those issues.

“Support at the time was really lacking from governments, so it’s almost like we’re on our own trying to deal with the addiction crisis. And it’s still ongoing and still it’s a crisis.”

WATCH | Shamattawa chief calls for military help:

The chief of Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba is renewing calls for military aid in his community as the number of people infected with COVID-19 continues to grow. 1:52

Meanwhile, Shamattawa First Nation is battling COVID-19 problems of its own.

About 1,300 people live in the fly-in community, about 745 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

On Thursday, Shamattawa Chief Eric Redhead said over 100 people are currently positive for the illness, and the community had a 68 per cent test positivity rate.

“There is a significant amount of the virus circulating in the community,” said Anderson. “Obviously, [Chief Redhead] and his team are very concerned, as are all of us, and really trying to pull together as much as we can to support the efforts there.”

He has called on the military to intervene, and the Red Cross is helping out.

“The Canadian Red Cross is well-positioned to assist with pandemic efforts and continues to work with all levels of government, as well as Indigenous leadership to address emerging needs across the country,” a spokesperson with the organization said in a statement.

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