Experts say travel restrictions, masks may help slow COVID-19's spread through Hutterite communities

·6 min read

A lifelong resident of a Saskatchewan Hutterite community says she's worried about the spread of COVID-19, but that colony members are doing their best to support each other after the virus arrived in their world.

Earlier this summer, the province declared COVID-19 outbreaks in two Hutterite communities in the R.M. of Maple Creek. This week, 44 more cases were recorded on a colony in the R.M. of Star City, located roughly 600 kilometres to the northeast.

"Our people are doing pretty good. We're all still staying home. We're not travelling and we're also not allowing other colonies to come in," said 23-year-old Kaitlynn Tschetter, who has lived on the Quill Lake Colony, about 170 kilometres east of Saskatoon, for her entire life.

She said COVID-19 has yet to reach that colony, but that people are aware of dangers and are working to keep themselves and others safe.

"We are all worried for the colonies and the elder safety on the colony and when we do travel, we quarantine and stay in the house when we come back for 14 days," she said. "We're all kind of looking out for each other." She said colony members have been delivering care packages to those who are isolating in the community and said important gatherings, like weddings and funerals, have been brought online. Those in isolation also have access to prayer services online as well.

"We're all trying to stay at home as much as we can," she said. Adding later: "We have to follow the colony rules, but we also have to follow the authorities of outside."

Work and worship around the colony is continuing, but is being done with constant sanitation and physical distancing, she said.

During a news conference on Wednesday, Premier Scott Moe addressed Saskatchewan's Hutterite communities directly. He said there are small groups who are resistant to testing and health protocols. Moe noted this is a small portion of the Hutterite population, saying the majority have been co-operative.

"What you are doing is working and it's working well," he said.

Premier Scott Moe/Facebook
Premier Scott Moe/Facebook

The Saskatchewan Health Authority is also dispatching staff to the province's 80 Hutterite communities, home to roughly 6,000 people.

"We are there to work with our communities. We are there to support our communities in exactly the same way — in exactly the same way — that the Saskatchewan Health Authority has reached out and supported any community that has had an outbreak here in Saskatchewan," Moe said.

Moe said the rate of infection in the central region — 3.19, which means an infected person would spread the virus to 3.19 others on average — is among the highest he's aware of in North America. He noted that 76 per cent of active cases in Saskatchewan are in Hutterite communities.

On Friday, the province announced 14 new cases of COVID-19, with nine of them recorded on communal living settings across the province.

Michele Rajput, an epidemiologist whose work has primarily focused on chronic illness, said the province should be enacting mandatory travel restrictions between the colonies, similar as to what was done in Northern Saskatchewan.

"The province is more concerned about not setting the colonies up to be discriminated against ... than they are about stopping the spread of the virus within and between the communities."

Rajput said if travel is not restricted between the communities, she anticipates more cases to be recorded in the coming days and weeks.

"If a colony is affected, then that colony should be isolated, everybody tested, any individuals that are positive need to be quarantined and those travel restrictions need to be maintained until the virus is gone from that colony," she said.

"If you have people travelling outside of the colony to go to other towns, or to travel to other colonies, there's a really good chance they're taking the virus with them."

Other experts say the outbreak on the Hutterite communities in Saskatchewan is a chance for health officials to strengthen ties between these communities and provincial health officials.

"We have to take this opportunity to build some trust and relationships with cultural communities like the Hutterite communities," said Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan's department of community health and epidemiology.

University of Saskatchewan/On Campus News
University of Saskatchewan/On Campus News

Muhajarine said he has heard some people dispatched to the communities to provide information and conduct testing weren't aware English is not the primary language in Hutterite communities.

"You have to go into these communities with some awareness that we're dealing with a culturally-specific community," he said. "You need to actually meet them in their ways."

Muhajarine said language and mutual respect is one of the many ways health officials can build trust in these communities, but noted those in the colonies need to understand this is a reciprocal relationship, something he says is likely "second nature" for these communities.

"They're family-orientated. They're communal and they're community oriented so they understand that what they do affects other people around them."

Muhajarine emphasized that action needs to take place immediately to contain the outbreak, with contract tracing within 48 hours of a positive test and consistent mask wearing being encouraged.

Muhajarine said Hutterite leaders should be wearing masks voluntarily and encouraging their members to do the same to show they're ready to comply and co-operate.

Dr. Raywat Deonandan, a global-health epidemiologist and an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said the government's plan to dispatch staff to the colonies is the right move, as information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is critical.

"The single sharpest tool we have in the public health toolbox around this disease is education," he said. "You're not compelling them to behave a certain way, you're encouraging them through the display of evidence and strategy and tools."

Supplied by Raywat Deonandan
Supplied by Raywat Deonandan

Deonandan said that while it's important not to stigmatize any one cultural group, safety and preventing the spread of COVID-19 is paramount and if a community or group is unable to follow restrictions, then it must be isolated.

"If people cannot, or will not distance themselves, then you must put into place some restrictors to distance the community from the rest of the province," he said.

Saskatchewan's Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding said the province is encouraging compliance in each of the communities. He said most people are following the rules, but that the province isn't ruling out putting further restrictions in place.

"Right now, we're certainly encouraging compliance in each one of these communities, and we are getting that in the majority of cases, but we've never precluded either that we wouldn't have to take further steps if they're required."

Kaeding said if colony leaders come forward and ask for support from the government in terms of further restrictions, the government will be there to answer the call.

Moe said the province will continue with its educational approach and try to get voluntary compliance before looking at enforcement, saying the method has proven successful thus far.

"In the days ahead we feel that we will have — and we hope — that there will be vast collaboration and vast working together across this province," Moe said.

"We are extending our open hand to support, to help and to walk alongside our Saskatchewan Hutterite communities."

As of Friday afternoon, Saskatchewan has recorded a total of 1,319 cases of COVID-19, with 293 considered active.