From 'outright denial' to 'masking up:' COVID-19 surges in rural Sask.

·8 min read

At about 1,900 people, Indian Head has the ubiquitous small-town vibe: Most everyone knows each other; businesses crowd the lots on main street and the service road off the highway; old-timers still lament the closure of a storied tree farm years ago; buildings are fastened (rightfully so) for their utility first, their aesthetics second.

Like in most small communities, it’s easy in Indian Head to assume urban problems are just that — confined to the city, absent from the town.

But the town, 70 kilometres out from Regina on the Trans-Canada Highway, is learning the hard way viral pandemics hit everywhere, central and rural.

In this case the pandemic is SARS-CoV2, or COVID-19.

“Every age in our municipality: We have kids in the elementary school, positive kids in the high school (and) everything from 50 years and up,” mayor Steven Cole said.

Indian Head is contending with infections in its schools, long-term care homes, a popular bakery and a day care. The town office and the schools are closed. At least four eateries are either closed or cutting services.

Cole’s 77-year-old friend is now recovering from a COVID-19 infection.

“A lot of people are trying to lower the number here. Everybody's scared of getting it right now, so it's good they're all taking that extra step of precaution,” he said.

Data-wise, Indian Head is in the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s (SHA) south east region, sub-region 1. The area, which includes Balcarres, Fort Qu’Appelle, Vibank and others, had 93 active cases by Friday afternoon.

There are four active outbreaks in town — the bakery, a day care and two seniors’ homes.

Indian Head native Shannon Grant Tompkins has had to watch from afar as her father, Brian, contracted the virus and is now in intensive care (ICU) in Regina. She lives in Calgary.

Upon returning home to be closer to her dad, Shannon launched a Facebook page to show COVID victims are faces like her dad, to plainly show no town, no matter how small, can skirt the coronavirus.

“I was also appalled in the number of people that feel COVID is still a hoax and those survivors of COVID-19 that feel alienated and/or shame that they were infected and survived COVID,” she wrote of online responses to her first online post about her dad’s infection.

As the virus spreads in small-towns, as anti-maskers protest and seek public office in Regina and Yorkton, Saskatoon’s Dr. Dennis Kendel puts part of the blame on the provincial government.

He contends it has failed to fully communicate to people how deadly the virus is.

Kendel thinks a summer story out of Maine is instructive, despite its distance from the Canadian Prairies.

A couple celebrated their Aug. 7 wedding reception in a central Maine town of just under 4,000 people; more than 65 guests attended the indoor event. A month later, the Associated Press reports, seven people died from COVID-19 infections, thanks to the marriage ceremony; six of the dead had nothing to do with the wedding day, while 175 Mainers now carry a new coronavirus infection.

Kendal believes provincial authorities would do better to tell stories like this one, instead of only reporting “narrowly focused” caseloads each afternoon. The province has often cited privacy constraints for not sharing more.

Stories like Maine's, from other regions in Canada or beyond, would go a long way in showing rural residents how dangerous the viral spread is, said Kendel, who also served as registrar with the province’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

There’s also readily available data from similar regions — North Dakota, South Dakota Wyoming, Montana — showing the virus plaguing rural areas.

Thanks to CTV News’ data analysts, it’s easy to see the two states due south of Saskatchewan (the Dakotas) have the highest per-day, per-million-people increase rate of infections anywhere on the continent north of Mexico.

As of Thursday, over the previous seven days, North Dakota’s rate was 1,769.4 coronavirus cases per million people, while South Dakota’s was 1,457.5. Wyoming is third on the list, while Montana is eighth.

Populations in the Dakotas and Wyoming are less than one million people each; Montana’s 1.068 million people is closer to Saskatchewan’s 1.178 million.

In Saskatoon, Kendel was one of the hundreds of doctors signing a letter to Premier Scott Moe urging a province-wide masking mandate, irrespective of a community’s size. That mandate came to fruition only after a bizarre, three-strep process starting in Regina, Prince Albert and Saskatoon and then moving to locales with 5,000 or more residents.

Technically, Indian Head wasn’t included in the mandate until it kicked in on Thursday.

Cole, the town’s mayor, said buy-in from residents to hunker down at home has been good since the four outbreaks hit, with three restaurants and the bakery opting to reduce or cut service.

Bart Horseman, who owns Indian Head Bakery, shut down dine-in, pick-up and bakery services on Nov. 6; four his 14 employees contracted COVID-19, one of who was symptom-free ten days after getting a positive test result. He and another employee are set to finish self-quarantine at the end of this weekend.

The bakery owner plans to reopen, with pick-up-only service, on Monday.

Still, the two-week hiatus hits him where it hurts — his budget.

“It's going to suck losing that kind of money, let's be honest. But I sure don't want to lose people, don't want to lose friends. Just seeing four staff members sick was hard enough,” Horseman said.

Further west, Richard Marleau understands how a province-wide lockdown would prompt fears over killing businesses.

He’s the reeve of the Rural Municipality of Auvergne, managing an area 100 kilometres south of Swift Current along Highway 13 that covers Ponteix and Aneroid.

The RM serves 412 constituents over 850 square kilometres; it’s about an hour’s drive north from the Montana border.

Marleau thinks it’s tricky for the province to find a balance of restrictions that don’t kill the economy.

“That's not ideal either, but if you let this thing run rampant it could turn into a disaster real quick,” he said.

The RM sits in the SHA’s south central region, sub-region 1, which includes places like Assiniboia, Coronach, Chaplin and Waldeck, but excludes Moose Jaw and Swift Current. By Friday, the sub-region had 13 active cases.

The reeve says constituents’ regard for COVID-19 falls on a spectrum, “from outright denial to people who are concerned and are masking up.”

Out in “the smaller centres we can see there's a feeling that we're somewhat isolated from it, but by the same token, all it takes is sort of one case to show up and people let their guard down; it spreads pretty rapidly,” Marleau said.

He urged people to wear masks indoors.

“If (people) mask up before they go in, that will help quite a bit. It's not full-proof, but it will help quite a bit for sure,” he said.

Indian Head’s mayor sounded bewildered by comments on social media advocating for no masks.

“I just ... why wouldn't we take the chance? If it's going to save a life or save a friend, why wouldn't we take the chance of wearing one?” Cole said.

Horseman, the bakery’s owner, was glad to see the province finally include his town and every community with fewer than 5,000 residents in its order to wear masks indoors.

Nor is his town an outlier in the broader provincial picture.

Active viral outbreaks are happening in Esterhazy, Ituna, Kinistino, Lloydminster, Lumsden, Moose Jaw, North Battelford, Parkside, Prince Albert, Shellbrook, Swift Current, Wolseley and Yorkton, along with several far north communities.

Kendel emphasized being "more responsible in government circles and in health authority circles" with communicating data.

A good item to highlight would be the fact Saskatchewan is past a tipping point for its effective reproduction rate of the coronavirus. That means on average one person infected with it is spreading it to more than one new person.

In rural Saskatchewan that number is in the danger zone: One person infected with COVID-19 is giving it to 3.5 new people.

But as a former farm kid from eastern Saskatchewan, Kendel figures rural folk ought to start pulling their own weight, too.

“One of the hallmarks of culture in rural communities has been the sense of collective responsibility; we have some responsibility for the well-being of neighbours.

“And I would have thought that would have led people to more universally-engage in masking," the doctor said. "But it hasn't seemed to do that."

eradford@postmedia.com

Evan Radford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Regina Leader-Post, The Leader-Post