Door-to-door COVID-19 testing in and around the northern Saskatchewan community of La Loche has concluded, the province says — an effort some hope will have long-lasting positive effects on health care in region.
The far north was at the heart of the pandemic in the province, with roughly 39 per cent of the province's total confirmed cases located in the region, and the majority of those cases concentrated in the village of La Loche.
Premier Scott Moe said recently that health officials have gone to "each and every door" in the community as part of the mass testing effort.
On Friday, Dr. Rim Zayed, the Saskatchewan Health Authority's northern medical health officer, said in total 813 households were tested in and around the La Loche area, with between 40 to 50 tests done daily.
"It was a lot of work — of course," Dr. Zayed said on Friday.
Health officials worked closely with community leaders to ensure proper preparation and planning was undertaken around the effort, she said, which was a "unique experience" for the province due to the urgency of testing.
"It's a completely unique experience everywhere," she said. "Locally, nationwide and globally."
Combined with aggressive contact tracing, strict travel restrictions and additional supports around self-isolation, medical staff in the north have started to stabilize the number of cases being recorded in Saskatchewan's far north.
However, the case count isn't the only thing that's benefited from the collaboration.
Dr. Zayed said engagement between the Saskatchewan Health Authority and local leaders in the north was "unprecedented," with the work starting the two groups down a more collaborative path on a long-term basis.
"One virtue in disguise, or the silver lining of this crisis, is that we have more understanding, communication, engagement, solidarity," she said. "It's a very good thing to address the health needs [in the north] and we have more awareness and understanding on a mutual basis, for sure."
La Loche Mayor Robert St. Pierre has been helping to co-ordinate the community's response since COVID-19 arrived in the community in mid-April. He said working so closely with the health authority has allowed those in the community to gain a better understanding of the role each individual plays.
"What we have is a good working relationship and a better understanding of what we need to do to work together to combat this virus, and that's the common enemy right now," he said.
St. Pierre noted the community of La Loche is a resilient one and said people are always willing to do whatever it takes to protect the region and its residents.
"It's the understanding that we needed to go through these processes to understand where we are with the cases rising and the contact tracing," he said.
"The community is willing to undergo these steps just to ensure the safety of the whole. To work together, that's what we needed to do, and people in the community rose up to that."
Chester Herman has lived in La Loche for the majority of his life and was one of the thousands of people in Saskatchewan's far north tested for COVID-19. He said the experience was relatively quick.
"It was easy," he said. "They just do a swab test and that's it. There's nothing major to it."
Herman said while there is "optimism in the air" as case numbers continue to fall, he has concerns about travel restrictions remaining in Saskatchewan's northwest, after the province relaxed restrictions in other parts of the north earlier this week.
"We're basically losing our human rights," he said.
Herman said with numbers steadily dropping, he thinks conversations should be happening around lifting some of the restrictions still in place, which he says are "out of control" and "unjust."
"We're not in 1920 anymore. We're in 2020," he said. "Our Aboriginal rights should mean a little more than what they did in 1920 compared to now. It's just ridiculous we're being locked up here."
Kelly Kwan is a resident in Turnor Lake, Sask., and the president of the Local Metis 40, the branch of the Metis Nation-Saskatchewan for those in the Turnor Lake area.
He said the pandemic has been weighing heavy on him and many in the north, but he's cautiously optimistic about the numbers.
"It's definitely a positive sign," he said.
He hopes the numbers continue to drop, because he'd like to see travel restrictions relaxed further as things improve, noting many in the north are anxious to move freely again. He's excited for when the restrictions are lifted, so he can see his extended family again.
"Being a grandparent is one of the most priceless and enjoyable things I've ever experienced," he said. "Just to hold them in my arms, and kiss them and everything — it will be all worth the wait, the struggles and challenges we face on a day-to-day basis."
On Saturday, the province announced three new confirmed COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of cases recorded in Saskatchewan to 630, of which only 88 are considered active.