‘Spreading like wildfire’: Kashechewan First Nation sees COVID-19 surge in children, teens

Kashechewan First Nation in northern Ontario is experiencing a “deepening state of emergency” as a result of surging COVID-19 cases in the community that are primarily among youth who are under 18 years old.

The situation has led to a complete lockdown of the community, while six people who are over 18 and weren’t vaccinated have also been airlifted out to Kingston, Ont., the chief confirmed Tuesday.

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As of Monday afternoon, the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) confirmed a total of 216 COVID-19 cases in Kashechewan, a community of about 1,800. The nation’s chief Leo Friday said most of those cases are among children and teenagers who haven’t been vaccinated from the novel coronavirus.

“I think it might also be due to children growing up in overcrowded homes, many of which have dangerous levels of mold,” Friday said. “Many already have lung and skin problems.”

Kashechewan First Nation has a small nursing station with no doctors. There are also no hospitals in the community.

On Sunday, Indigenous Services Canada said 15 rangers from the Canadian Armed Forces were being mobilized to be sent to the community. The Canadian Red Cross has also deployed 14 people to Kashechewan and three people to Timmins, Ont., for support.

“Weeneebayko Health Authority is helping with general health needs, including mental health needs,” ISC Minister Marc Miller told Global News Tuesday. “ISC has that constant presence there with (the) nursing station and the nursing capacity that we’ve increased over the course of the last week.”

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On Tuesday, Chief Friday said he expects the military rangers to arrive some time this week. While he welcomes the support, he said government action has come “so late.”

“Our water and sewage systems desperately need upgrades so that they are reliable and so we can build more homes,” Friday said.

“Our nursing station is too small, with not enough rooms for the staff to work in and no space for mental health counselling services.”

Friday told Global News there isn’t enough housing for community members with COVID-19 to be able to isolate properly. He said the nation’s housing department has a list of 200 people who are in need of homes.

Miller said ISC will provide Kashechewan with more isolation facilities, including dome structures and possibly tents.

“(In) these communities, when you have a certain percentage that get COVID and have to isolate … the critical infrastructure starts to shut down, and people need help doing food security,” Miller added. “The Armed Forces have proven a very, very nimble solution.”

On Tuesday, Charlie Angus, the NDP Member of Parliament (MP) for Timmins–James Bay, said the situation is Kashechewan is “grave” as COVID-19 continues to “spread like wildfire.”

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“COVID is moving through children and babies,” Angus said. “These are children who in the past we had to medically evacuate because of the black mold in the homes, children with lung problems. I’m so used to the federal government trying to downplay and ignore these problems on reserves because they don’t want to end up paying the money, but this may be the new phase of the pandemic.”

Angus said if the federal government acted to help Kashechewan more than a week ago, the community wouldn’t be in the situation it’s currently in.

“I’m really concerned about the other James Bay communities because we’ve identified a number of cases,” he said. “If it’s in Kashechewan, it’s in the other communities. We need to have a proactive response across the James Bay region.”

On Monday, WAHA said there were 17 COVID-19 cases in Moosonee, 15 in Fort Albany, 11 in Attawapiskat and three in Moose Factory. The health authority said the U.K. COVID-19 variant is known to be present in some of the communities, including Kashechewan.

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“It’s a warning signal for all of Canada, frankly, when we look at our own young ones,” Miller said. “This is particularly vulnerable in communities of … people living in crowded conditions and high youth rates.”

Friday said 74 per cent of community members age 18-plus were vaccinated in early March. He said around 250 people were immunized in early June, including children and teens ages 12 to 17.

On Tuesday, the Porcupine Health Unit in northern Ontario reported a total of 337 COVID-19 cases, 262 of which are in the James Bay and Hudson Bay regions.

The entire Porcupine region is still under lockdown and didn’t enter the first stage of Ontario’s reopening plan when it went into effect for most of the province last week.

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