First Nations and their allies take on Quebec’s Omicron wave

Many Indigenous communities in Quebec that were spared during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic are now seeing the number of cases soar. This is a situation that worries leaders and experts.

“It’s a tsunami of cases, which have almost tripled since the beginning of the year,” said Dr. André Corriveau, public health adviser at the First Nations of Quebec and Quebec Health and Social Services Commission. Labrador (FNQLHSSC).

To compound the problem, these same communities have fewer medical resources and face overcrowded housing conditions and many people with underlying health conditions.

In Montreal, Dr. Stanley Vollant, an Innu from the Pessamit community and the first Quebec-born Indigenous surgeon, thinks asymptomatic people likely brought the virus to remote First Nations.

“[It’s] four times, five times higher than the first and second wave of COVID,” Vollant said. “We have to be very careful and aware to protect our elders.

The stealth of the current variant worries him.

“With this very big wave of Omicron, other people who are not very sick but who have to [miss] work can affect the health system,” he said. “And also social security in our communities, like police, firefighters, people in key positions.

Bertie Wapachee, president of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, says the Omicron wave has “stunned” the Cree Nation of Quebec. (Christopher Herodier/CBC)

The underestimated number of cases

The FNQLHSSC says there were a total of 1,414 active cases in 29 First Nations communities as of Friday — and that doesn’t take into account positive results from rapid tests people took at home.

From Wednesday to Friday alone, 575 active cases were reported in the Indigenous communities the commission works with.

In northern Quebec, the Nunavik and James Bay regions have their own health authorities. The Inuit territory of Nunavik last reported 39 new cases on Thursday, for a total of 349 active cases in the region.

On Friday, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay reported 355 active cases among the 10 Cree communities and seven people hospitalized.

Bertie Wapachee, chief of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, says Omicron hit the Cree Nation of Quebec particularly hard.

“It stunned us…stopped a lot of things for us. The way it spread was like no other [wave], this one was very different.”

Wapachee says COVID cases among health care workers have caused staffing issues in his area, which has only one hospital in the community of Chisasibi, and that Crees who have a serious infection requiring hospitalization should be sent to Val-d’Or or Montreal.

Dr. Corriveau, who was hired as a public health advisor for the FNQLHSSC at the start of the pandemic, says some communities had their first cases with this wave.

Dr. André Corriveau is a public health advisor to the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission. He says many Indigenous communities in the province saw their first cases of COVID-19 during the latest wave of infections. (Canadian Water Network)

Originally from Quebec, Corriveau has worked in Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nunavut and the Nunavik region of Quebec, including three years as Alberta’s Chief Public Health Officer. .

So far, he says, most Indigenous people who have caught the new variant are showing mild symptoms, and so far there are only five Indigenous COVID patients in hospital.

While Omicron’s cases appear to be less severe, he says the variant’s transmissibility is concerning – especially in communities where homes are smaller, crowded and leave little room for people to self-isolate.

Higher rates of chronic diseases — such as diabetes, heart disease or cancer — are also concerning, Corriveau said.

“The other vulnerability of our First Nations is the remoteness and fragility of the health system,” he added. “This can quickly evolve into a situation where access to even basic health services is impacted for the community.”

The key to success

At the start of the pandemic, Innu leaders created a crisis unit and began meeting twice a week with Vollant and other doctors from provincial and federal health authorities to share information, discuss strategy and coordinate efforts. regional.

“We can act quickly, we can have better concerted action,” Vollant said. “I think this has been a big key to the success of the Innu communities’ fight against COVID.

Corriveau says the FNQLHSSC acts as a bridge between Indigenous communities and regional public health authorities in Quebec. He says the pandemic has forced the province to interact and collaborate more with First Nations leaders, which he hopes will continue.

“There are many things that cannot be provided at the community level. [They] rely on doctors, hospitals and other services provided by the province,” he said.

A clinic in the Cree community of Nemaska. The spread of COVID has taken health care providers and leaders in the Cree territories by surprise. (Jaime Little/CBC)

Vollant and Corriveau said they will be watching closely to see when community transmission begins to slow. Nunavik and North Shore First Nations have implemented strict travel restrictions and additional public health measures to those imposed by the province.

“It’s not over. This wave is going to last a few weeks, maybe two months,” Vollant said.

Corriveau is more optimistic about what he calls a “very rapidly changing situation”.

“Hopefully we will peak within a week or two and things will gradually start to improve.”

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