Ottawa preparing isolation tents for COVID-19 outbreak in Indigenous communities

The federal government is prepared to use isolation tents and temporary shelters to deal with the threat of an outbreak of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities, according to a senior department official.

Valerie Gideon, senior assistant deputy minister for the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, said the Public Health Agency of Canada is working on procuring specialized isolation tents for screening and testing that could be used in communities that lack adequate infrastructure to deal with COVID-19, which has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

“We are looking to procure some of these tents in order to be able to deploy them rapidly as needed,” Gideon said.

“If they have a very small health centre — for instance, we have communities that have a nursing station with only two or three nursing staff, so it’s very limited in terms of space. So that would be an area where we may deploy a tent.”

Gideon said the specialized tents, which measure about six by five metres, create a “negative pressure” environment conducive to screening and testing.

As coronavirus cases continue to rise, more and more people are being asked to to self-isolate at home, for two weeks at a time, if they are symptomatic or have been diagnosed with the disease. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the acquisition of specialized equipment such as isolation tents is part of the government’s tailored approach to the specific needs of remote Indigenous communities. 

“It’s part of a distinctions-based approach we have to make for communities where [there] is a risk to further spread COVID-19 should that occur,” Miller said.

Many remote First Nation and Inuit communities face housing shortages and overcrowding, with multiple families sharing a single home. Many Indigenous communities also lack of clean drinking water and have limited access to medical services, making them particularly vulnerable to an outbreak and making self-isolation — one of the key measures for dealing with COVID-19 — difficult to accomplish, according to the department.

Use of field hospitals a possibility

In addition to tents, Gideon said the department is also prepared to ship lightweight structures to house people who need to self-isolate, and to provide accommodations for any additional health workers who may need to be sent to Indigenous communities facing an outbreak.

“If you’re having additional service providers who are going to fly into communities, there’s not necessarily a place to stay. The nursing station residences will be full. People’s homes may not be an option … The hotels may be full,” Gideon said.

“We’re looking at temporary shelter solutions that would have a heating component as well as a heating source.”

Left to right: Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, Manitoba Metis Federation President and Metis National Council Vice-President David Chartrand, and President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Natan Obed say they’re worried about the impact COVID-19 could have on their communities. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Gideon said the department is considering initiating emergency deployments of temporary shelters as the season for winter roads — which serve many remote communities — nears its end.

The possible need for field hospitals also has been raised in discussions on preparing for a COVID-19 outbreak in remote communities, but Gideon said this is a discussion that needs to include provincial health departments.

“It is something that has been raised very, very recently,” Gideon said.

“We will be talking to provincial governments to see if that’s part of what they’re looking at in terms of their pandemic plans.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau are in self-isolation after she was tested for COVID-19. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The last time Indigenous communities asked for help to prepare for a pandemic, Health Canada sent more than two dozen body bags to a Manitoba First Nation during the H1N1 outbreak, known as the swine flu.

Much has changed since that 2009 mishap, which forced Health Canada to apologize to Wasagamack First Nation

The need for field hospitals was also raised during the H1N1 outbreak, which led Manitoba First Nations to declare a state of emergency. Since most remote Indigenous communities only have a nursing station or a small medical centre, people who fell sick at the time were sent to cities via air ambulances to be treated in hospitals already dealing with the local population.

National Indigenous leaders concerned

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said COVID-19 poses a potentially deadly threat to remote First Nation communities. 

“If they don’t get the care, there will be deaths,” Bellegarde said.

“There will be high numbers because it’s just going to spread rampant. That’s my biggest fear.”

David Chartrand, vice-president of the Métis National Council, said he is worried about the impact COVID-19 could have on his people, spread across 80 villages and cities.

“If it ever hits our communities, if it ever comes to any of our Métis villages, we are in big trouble,” Chartrand said.

“We don’t have health care centres. We don’t have no supports. We have no program with the province. There’s nothing. We’re on our own. If it ever hits us, what do we do?”

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami — the national organization representing Inuit —  said a lack of infrastructure and adequate health services leaves many Inuit communities vulnerable to the type of outbreak currently unfolding across the globe.

“As a respiratory illness, COVID19 poses a specific threat to Inuit because of things like overcrowding and lack of infrastructure and lack of health care,” Obed said.

“I do think that COVID-19 goes hand in hand with some of the other challenges.”

Indigenous leaders were hoping to discuss the response to COVID-19 during a planned First Ministers meeting Thursday in Ottawa, but it was postponed after the Prime Minister’s Office announced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau had been tested for the virus. The prime minister has decided to self-isolate and work from his residence.

On Wednesday, Trudeau announced his government was putting $1 billion toward dealing with the pandemic. Funding for Indigenous communities was earmarked to come out of a $100 million envelope.

Infection rate in remote Indigenous communities unclear

Gideon said plans are already in place to deal with the pandemic and the department is now in continual communication with communities to deal with the rapidly changing landscape COVID-19 is creating.

“There’s flexibility in the government’s approach to ensure that resources will be available where they are needed and that we do not have a shortage with respect to supplies or testing capacity,” Gideon said.

The department is ensuring that health workers in communities have the supplies they need, from protective masks to hand sanitizers, according to Gideon.

She said it’s not clear at the moment what the potential infection rate could be if it hits remote Indigenous communities. 

“I mean, you could look at a 35 per cent type rate of potential … But I think it’s highly variable,” she said.

“It’s important also to remember that the overall Indigenous population is a younger population. So far, for the moment, we’ve seen [with]  COVID-19 not many children have been impacted … That also is important to remember in terms of probability.”

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