117 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Shamattawa, Man., renewing calls for military aid

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.

As of 9:30 p.m. Thursday, 117 people have contracted the illness, and there is a 68 per cent test-positivity rate, said Chief Eric Redhead.

“We’re stretched more than thin,” said Redhead. “We’re literally at the breaking point right now.”

Shamattawa First Nation is a fly-in community located about 745 kilometres north of Winnipeg, northeast of Thompson, Man. About 1,300 people live on the First Nation, according to Redhead. 

Redhead has been calling for military assistance this entire week. The number of cases in his community keeps growing, despite efforts such as imposing a curfew, a mask mandate, closing the band office and school, and urging people to stay home.

Niki Ashton, the NDP Member of Parliament for Churchill Keewatinook Aski, reiterated calls on Thursday to send in more help, telling question period that the situation in Shamattawa “is an unfolding nightmare.”

The school gym is being used as an isolation unit for people who test positive. About 24 people can stay there and it is currently at capacity, said Redhead. Nearly 40 people have now been moved out of the community so they can properly self-isolate, but Redhead says the facilities outside the First Nation are nearing their limits too.

Some of the front-line staff, such as appointed public health enforcement officers, are now in isolation. A member of the rapid response team, which was deployed by the federal government this week, is also in isolation, but Redhead said he doesn’t know if that’s because they tested positive.

“The feeling is really grim right now. We need boots on the ground,” he said.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has also been calling for the help. But says the location makes it a challenge.

“Unfortunately Shamattawa is in quite a unique situation, remote and isolated and the outbreak is quite severe,” he said.

Nine members of the Bear Clan Patrol in Winnipeg are shipping up to the community Friday, and five members of the Red Cross are being deployed Sunday, said Redhead.

Shamattawa First Nation is a fly-in community located about 745 kilometres north of Winnipeg, northeast of Thompson, Man. About 1,300 people live on the First Nation. (CBC)

Some staff of the local grocery store tested positive and the North West Company, which owns the store, flew in employees so it could still operate. 

The federal government has sent in a rapid response team — with an isolation tent and a rapid testing machine. But Redhead says the team can only do so much with the infrastructure available and that they too are at a breaking point.

Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Thursday that the military is an option — but stopped short of committing that help during question period.

“We’ll remain in active communication and provide additional support — including [the Canadian Armed Forces] as needed,” he said. 

Miller said he had planned to talk with Chief Redhead on Thursday.

Redhead told CBC News Thursday night that he has heard federal government might send in the military, but he isn’t getting his hopes up until there is a confirmed commitment.

“We need their medical expertise,” he said, adding that a field hospital and temporary structures for isolation are desperately needed. 

The province said it is monitoring the situation as well, although a spokesperson said it had not yet been asked to provide any specific or unique support to Shamattawa First Nation.

Redhead received a letter from Premier Brian Pallister that encouraged him and the community to keep fighting, but no services were offered, he said.

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