A medical health officer serving Saskatchewan's north says the region needs help — and better co-operation from some residents — as it grapples with a spike in COVID-19 cases.
"If we don't have any changes in behaviour at the individual level, I think we are bound to continue to see cases," said Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka, a medical health officer for the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) based in Prince Albert.
Across the province, there were 4,265 active cases of COVID-19 identified by health officials on Monday.
Just over half of those cases, 2,167, were in the six broad Far North and North zones tracked by officials — even though those zones only have a combined population of 272,937 people (compared to the 938,196 people who live in the rest of the province).
Some of those northern zones have seen their active caseloads increase dramatically in the new year. In the North West zone, for example, there were 276 cases on Jan. 7. Only ten days later, on Jan. 17, the number had nearly doubled, to 535.
"Definitely the current situation in the northern part of Saskatchewan is of great concern to us," Ndubuka said.
Ndubuka said northern Saskatchewan faces innate challenges when combating COVID-19, such as poorer access to health care compared to the south. Overcrowded households can make it difficult for infected people to self-isolate, he said.
But Ndubuka said several recent mass gatherings, including wakes and funerals, as well as mixing of households, are causing the recent spike in cases.
On Sunday, NITHA declared an outbreak in Black Lake, located in the Far North Central sub-zone, and warned residents that COVID-positive people had attended a wake and funeral in the community from Dec. 31 to Jan. 2 while likely infectious.
Thirteen cases were linked to the event as of Monday and more cases were expected to emerge, Ndubuka said.
Saskatchewan's current public health rules allow for up to 30 people to attend a funeral indoors.
"What we're seeing is that that number, most times, is not being respected," Ndubuka said, adding that not everybody has been complying with physical distancing measures either.
Only immediate family members should attend such ceremonies, he said.
Lower outdoor gathering needed: doctor
Ndubuka said that while COVID fatigue may be setting in in the North, people need to rally for the greater good.
"We do see hope with the arrival of the vaccine and also for people to be a little bit more patient, as all this comes together to overcome this common enemy."
Ndubuka said the province should further restrict attendance at outdoor events. Up to 10 people can currently attend events together outside.
"It should be a provincewide approach, recognizing that Saskatchewan has the highest rate [of active cases] per capita in the country," he said.
More self-isolation units are needed in the North, he added.
More vaccines needed now
"The other measures that we think would also help would be the need to increase vaccine allocation to the northern region, recognizing that there's a higher proportion of [Indigenous people], including those living in remote areas, in the north, but only accessible by air," Ndubuka said.
Saskatchewan has cited northern communities as one of four priority vaccination groups within the first phase of its vaccine rollout plan.
As of Monday, 7,948 first doses were administered in northern Saskatchewan, compared to 12,918 first doses in the rest of the province.