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Containing an outbreak in remote communities: lessons learned from Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak in an Indigenous community

Establishing frank, clear communications, collaborating with local leaders, and employing creative problem solving are among the most effective efforts employed in containing an outbreak in northwestern Saskatchewan, and the lessons learned could help other remote, rural areas.
By: Heather Marie Connors
October 02, 2020
Photo by Chief Teddy Clark via Facebook

Beginning in April and lasting for three months, the outbreak in La Loche, Saskatchewan saw 282 people - about seven per cent of the Clearwater River Dene Nation population - test positive for COVID-19, and five people died. The way the outbreak was handled is now being used by health officials as a case study in best practices.

When the outbreak began, local leaders came up with their own pandemic response plan, and worked with all levels of government like never before. Randy Herman, deputy mayor of La Loche, translated health messages into Dene for regular radio briefings with updates from the Saskatchewan Health Authority and local leaders. He knew that one of the big challenges would be getting residents to trust health officials, and that elders would listen to local leaders, particularly in Dene, in a way they wouldn’t listen to outsiders.

Next, an unprecedented travel ban was set up by local leaders, requiring residents to remain in their communities. The province staffed highway checkpoints.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority established mobile testing teams who went door to door - each team included a local outreach worker who could translate. A remote lab was established to process the tests, delivering results within an hour.

Creative problem solving led to using RV campers as makeshift homeless shelters, where people in this remote region could self-isolate. The La Loche Friendship Centre monitored the campers, and delivered hot meals.

In order to care for those with addiction issues, the health authority launched a managed alcohol program that provided daily allotments, while alcohol sales in the community were halted.

Not every step was smooth - there were jurisdictional snafus between the province and Indigenous Services Canada, backlash against roadblocks, and delays in initial testing efforts. But overall, the containment of this outbreak is considered a positive example of health authorities and communities working together.

"I think it's a success story of how things can be handled," said Carrie Bourassa, the scientific director at the federal Institute of Indigenous Peoples' Health. "They have an excellent model that I think can be scaled up in other rural, remote northern communities."

Source: CBC Saskatchewan

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