H1N1 hit northern Manitoba First Nations hard — some worry COVID-19 will do the same

By | March 27, 2020

Just over a decade ago, hundreds of people started to become ill with flu-like symptoms in Manitoba’s Island Lake region.

It was 2009, and H1N1 influenza had begun to spread. It would take a devastating toll on remote First Nations in the area, including St. Theresa Point. 

The First Nation was hit hard. Hundreds became ill and some were admitted to hospital in Winnipeg, about 460 kilometres to the south, in critical condition. Babies became sick. One woman who was pregnant had a miscarriage after getting the virus.

Eleven people in Manitoba died from H1N1. At least three of those deaths were on the Garden Hill First Nation, where a fourth death was also suspected to be connected to the virus.

Today, in nearby St. Theresa Point — where homes are crowded and there is a lack of access to running water — leaders are worried about COVID-19.

“Of course we’re concerned. What’s going to happen if there’s an outbreak in our community?” St. Theresa Point Chief Marie Wood said.

While frequent hand-washing is one of the key recommendations during the outbreak, about half of the 4,500 people living on the reserve don’t have easy access to clean water to do so, Wood said.

People in Norway House are already starting to practise social distancing. Above, community members wait in line to buy bingo cards. (Submitted by Rasmey Albert)

When the community’s leadership started telling residents over the radio to wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday, they started getting calls from concerned band members, she said.

Some residents have access to tap water, but others rely on holding tanks with limited supplies.

“We just try to calm them down and tell them just put the water in the basin and wash your hands with soap, and maybe that will help.”

She worries that anyone in the community who contracts the coronavirus wouldn’t be able to quarantine easily, and could rapidly spread it.

“We’re being told that all you need to do is self-isolate and if there’s somebody that has symptoms, sniffles or temperature or coughing, they have to self-isolate,” she said.

“It’s very hard to do that with overcrowding in our community. We have people that have 20 people in one three-bedroom house.”

Hundreds of people became sick with flu-like symptoms in St. Theresa Point in 2009, during the H1N1 outbreak. (CBC)

St. Theresa Point is trying to get ahead of the coronavirus pandemic, and not see a repeat of 2009. Health Canada has already sent a three-bedroom house to the reserve, which will be used to isolate and test people who are ill, Wood said.

There are new rules that will limit wakes for people who die in the community to family members, and attendance at funerals will be limited to 50 people.

Hand sanitizer is being sent to the community and the First Nation has closed off most access to the reserve. As of midnight Wednesday, only essential workers and people bringing supplies will be allowed in.

Wood said her community has been asking for a hospital to better serve residents in the Island Lake area, but instead will have to rely on the nursing station, which is staffed on weekdays by two fly-in doctors.

“They’ll be overwhelmed if there’s an outbreak.”

States of emergency

Indigenous Services Canada said that as of March 20, 62 Manitoba First Nations had declared local states of emergency. Many have set up roadblocks to keep visitors out, including Norway House Cree Nation, which is requiring anyone who has left the territory and returned to go into self-isolation.

Norway House Chief Larson Anderson also fears the rapid spread of COVID-19 due to overcrowding, and is calling on the federal government to provide better homes in his community.

In St. Theresa Point, the community’s chief says about half of the on-reserve population doesn’t have easy access to clean water. Above, a resident washes their hands during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. (CBC)

“If the pandemic hits and the houses are overcrowded and [in] bad conditions, then we don’t know what the impact is going to be, but it’s not going to be pretty,” he said.

“If it doesn’t hit us and we do get houses anyway, we’re going to have a healthier society.”

About half of homes in Norway House are often left without water for one to 10 days, because of overcrowding and tanks that quickly run dry, Anderson said.

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Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas is urging all First Nations people to take COVID-19 seriously.

“I want to commend the leadership, but some of the feedback is that the urgency of the issue and matters is not being listened to or adhered to,” he said.

“We need to get that message out to all of our community members that they all individually need to play a role as well, to help all of us … curb the spread of this COVID virus.”

Back in St. Theresa Point, Wood is getting ready for the arrival of hand sanitizer and explaining the importance of social distancing to people in her First Nation.

“We want to protect the community at large.”

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