'High anxiety' in Fort Albany as COVID cases surge on the James Bay coast

·4 min read

With 56 active COVID-19 cases in the community of 900 people, there is high anxiety in Fort Albany, says Chief Robert Nakogee.

While vaccination efforts are underway and support has been sent to the area, there has been a surge of cases along the James Bay coast recently. This week, the region surpassed Timmins for the number of active COVID-19 cases.

In the Porcupine Health Unit region, there are currently 349 known active cases of the virus. There are 136 active cases in Timmins and 177 cases in the James Bay area.

In Weeneebayko Area Health Authority's last update yesterday, when there were 172 active cases, 23 were in Attawapiskat, 56 in Fort Albany, 59 in Kashechewan, five in Moose Factory and 29 in Moosonee.

At least three communities — Fort Albany, the Town of Moosonee and Attawapiskat — have declared a state of emergency.

Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus has expressed concern with the spike of cases in the region and urged the federal government to deploy members of the armed forces to help Kashechewan and other communities on the coast.

"The situation is critical, and a potential disaster is looming from a lack of resources and chronic overcrowding," he said in a letter addressed to Minister Bill Blair. "The community of Kashechewan is currently in a state of emergency. There is a rising COVID19 infection rate with 59 current cases in a population of only 1,900 people."

Angus said the ability of residents to access health services has been cut back as workers have either been sent home or had to isolate due to COVID-19 exposure.

"The contingent of 30 Canadian Rangers sent to help has also been reduced due to COVID-19 exposure, with only 4-5 of them currently available to assist," he said.

According to WAHA, there has been one hospitalized case and the UK, or B.1.1.7, variant is present in some of the communities.

Nakogee said the virus has affected Fort Albany members of all ages, including teenagers. The community had one confirmed case of the UK variant in May, that’s why the virus has spread fast, he said.

In addition, community members are struggling with the housing shortage with several families living in one household.

“In the community, it’s high anxiety,” Nakogee said adding there have also been 24 resolved cases in Fort Albany.

The chief has been keeping people informed through daily radio and Facebook updates.

The community received funding from Indigenous Services Canada for food supplies and personal protection equipment. Nakogee said there were distributions of bleach, fruits and vegetables, and meat to the community members. Extra boxes were dropped off at the larger households.

Since Friday, some Canadian Rangers, who were in close contact with positive cases, had to isolate, so Nakogee and two Thunder Air agents made deliveries of meat packages over the weekend.

“The rangers do play a big role on the ground supports and I do appreciate the teams. They do assist a lot in different areas,” Nakogee said.

Nakogee said more rangers were deployed to the community Monday to assist with ground support.

Fort Albany held a vaccination clinic last week with over 60 people vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine, including youths aged 12 to 17 and adults receiving their first dose. Another vaccination clinic has been scheduled this week.

WAHA pushed the vaccine rollout ahead of schedule, “so that we could get our people, young children vaccinated,” Nakogee said.

There were also mass testing clinics set up by WAHA with over 125 swabs collected last week, so the community is now waiting for the testing results to come back.

In the town of Moosonee, there is a downward trend for the number of COVID-19 cases, said Mayor Wayne Taipale.

“The community is really responding well now towards us asking people to stay home, not to gather in groups and take all health precautions that are out there,” he said.

There are isolation units set up at the Super 8 Hotel with the food provided from a local restaurant. The maximum number of people who stayed at the isolation units was eight people, the mayor said.

Food hampers are also being distributed to community members who need help. Northern Store is offering curbside pickup or delivery, according to Taipale.

He said it was mostly the younger age group, aged 39 and over, and children under the age of 18 who tested positive for COVID-19 in the community.

For Taipale, the reason why the virus spread quickly along the coast this time around was that people let their guards down.

“When they had their vaccine, I could see even in our community that people let their guards down. They were socializing, they were not following the precautions with the masks and distancing,” he said. “They thought they were protected, they didn’t realize you can still catch, carry and spread it. And all the youth weren’t vaccinated.”

The town also held vaccination clinics with 244 vaccines administered to adults and teenagers over the two days, according to Taipale.

Team Rubicon also arrived in Moosonee last Friday to help Cochrane District Social Services Administration Board (CDSSAB) with food distribution and community isolation efforts.

Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com

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