Health Minister Patty Hajdu raised the outbreak of eight cases of COVID-19 in Gull Bay during an update on the health situation in northern Ontario. Six of the cases were resolved by May 9, with two active cases self-isolating in the community.
“Obviously it’s a huge concern with even one case in a First Nation community because we know that First Nations communities have much more fragile health care access and much more fragile health in many cases, so of course it is always worrying,” Hajdu says during a May 7 phone interview. “That particular outbreak is in my riding so I’m keeping my eye on that as well.”
Hajdu, Thunder Bay-Superior MP, adds that she speaks with Gull Bay Chief Wilfred King on a regular basis.
“We have provided Indigenous communities quite a bit of money, each to spend in the way that they prefer and the way that makes sense for them,” Hajdu says. “I’m always working with Gull Bay to understand what their immediate needs are.”
Hajdu says First Nations communities have used their funds in a variety of ways, such as distributing groceries and other essential items to citizens so they don’t have to leave the community.
“Other communities have used very stringent protocols about visitors to the community,” Hajdu says. “The communities are being led by their leadership and the leadership is taking it seriously, which is I think one of the most important factors is the good governance that results in practices being promoted across the region.”
Hajdu says the situation where First Nations people are working on industrial sites located near their communities will have to be watched as the country reopens after the lockdown.
“There is always a challenge when people have more frequent contact with other people from outside their own family or their own community,” Hajdu says. “The key is really making sure people can have access to rapid testing. I know that Gull Bay is working very closely with the (Thunder Bay) District Health Unit. I check in every week with the health unit and the hospital, so they have definitely been working with the community to make sure anybody who has been in close contact has been tested. They’ve got eight cases now and are working to make sure those cases don’t spread.”
Hajdu says the federal government does not provide direct testing but does provide support to the provinces and territories with whatever they need to meet a community’s needs, such as supplies.
“Also, our military stands by to assist if there is any kind of real crises but so far we haven’t had to use any kind of military deployment to manage illness or outbreak in the northern communities,” Hajdu says.
Hajdu says it is important to realize the COVID-19 global pandemic is a “real wakeup call.”
“We all have to do better to strengthen health care no matter where people live,” Hajdu says. “So as we come out of this pandemic and look to strengthening health care fabric, I think that is going to be the next piece of work — making sure that we have better access to health care no matter you live in Canada.”
Hajdu says there have been pockets of outbreaks in some First Nation communities across the country but the federal government is working to make sure those outbreaks do not become widespread.
“I know (Indigenous Services Canada) Minister Marc Miller meets on a regular basis with his counterparts in Indigenous leadership to make sure they have what they need,” Hajdu says. “We are always working to look at how we make that money flow more quickly. Obviously it’s not just money though, it’s also making sure you have the right processes in place in a community and that you are able to rapidly detect any cases and then isolate and treat them very quickly.”
Hajdu says the federal government is currently working to make sure there is enough capacity to test for COVID-19, enough capacity for access to personal protective equipment for health care workers and other workers and that there is strong guidance for employers about how to protect their staff and their customers.
“Citizens have a really important job,” Hajdu says. “We need to continue our hard work to stay physically distanced from one another, we need to make sure we are washing our hands frequently and that we are absolutely staying home if we are sick.”