La Loche community
La Loche, a community in northwest Saskatchewan, has 29 active cases of COVID-19.
Northern Saskatchewan remains ground zero of the province’s struggle against COVID-19, as 11 of 12 new cases reported on Monday came from the far north.
Overall, Saskatchewan has 72 active cases of the disease. Most are in the far north, an expansive region that extends from Green Lake and Tobin Lake in the south all the way to the border with the Northwest Territories. Twenty-nine cases are in just one community: La Loche.
Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said the COVID-19 curve remains flat throughout most of Saskatchewan’s regions. There were no new cases in Regina or Saskatoon.
“But, of course, we have a challenging cluster of cases in La Loche,” he acknowledged.
Shahab also confirmed Saskatchewan’s fifth death from COVID-19 was a resident from La Loche. That confirms previous reports that Joseph Pierre Sylvester, an 83-year-old resident of a long-term care home in La Loche’s integrated health facility, had died in North Battleford.
“Sadly, today we are also mourning the loss of another Saskatchewan resident as a result of COVID-19,” said Premier Scott Moe. “And our thoughts and our deepest condolences are with the family and with friends at this difficult time.”
Sylvester is one of two residents at the long-term care home to contract the disease, according to the health ministry. Two health-care workers have tested positive.
Dr. Rim Zayed, medical health officer for northern Saskatchewan, said other cases tested in the long-term care home have come back negative, but residents are still being monitored.
Zayed said health officials have connected 26 of the 29 La Loche cases to a case from Northern Alberta. She said all of the La Loche cases have been tracked to a specific link, leading her to suggest the outbreak is under control.
But that doesn’t mean it’s over.
“We are expecting to have new cases and any other outbreak or cluster that happens, you will always find these new cases,” she said.
Zayed said contact tracing efforts are now reaching 70 people per day around La Loche. About 30 tests per day are being conducted there.
Moe pointed to efforts to “aggressively” expand contact tracing and testing in the area. He said a new testing machine will be ready by May 1. It will be able to do rapid testing in the community itself.
He said people returning from work camps in Alberta are being asked to self-isolate.
But NDP Leader Ryan Meili and Saskatchewan Union of Nurses President Tracy Zambory both said it isn’t enough. Meili called for testing of every person in the community and surrounding region.
“I’m calling on the government to mobilize the resources necessary to test everyone in La Loche and Clearwater River Dene Nation to make sure we are able to identify all the cases and give people the support to self isolate to stop the transmission and stop that outbreak,” he said.
Education and public health measures in Saskatchewan
Zambory said she has spoken with nurses from La Loche and learned that there is a need for more resources in the face of the outbreak, especially around contact tracing and education on public health measures.
“We’re in a crisis situation,” said Zambory. “And we’re expecting a population that hasn’t gotten much help in the past to suddenly understand and follow all these rules.”
Zambory said acute care services are no longer being offered in La Loche’s health facility after nurses had to move to long-term care to cover for others who were ill. The health ministry confirmed on Monday that patients are not being admitted, though it noted other services remain available.
“Emergency and long term care are open in La Loche,” it said. “Any emergency patients or others who require admission are being transferred to alternate facilities.”
Moe said on Monday that the first two phases of the Re-Open Saskatchewan plan remain on track, despite the outbreak in La Loche.
“It’s not throughout the North. It’s just in that localized area,” he said.
But Zambory, who has questioned the plan before, still has her doubts.
“It really is scary now that we’re starting to really become overly comfortable,” said Zambory. “It looks like we’re throwing caution to the wind.”