*This story was updated at 7:35 p.m. to reflect the change in confirmed cases from eight to 11.
SADDLE LAKE – It’s been a week since Saddle Lake Chief Eric Shirt announced a 14-day lockdown at Saddle Lake Cree Nation until Sept. 21, following a confirmed case of COVID-19 on the reserve. By Friday of last week, the number of confirmed case has increased to four and as of today there were 11 cases.
Dr. Chris Sarin, Deputy Medical Officer of Health with First Nations and Inuit Health Branch Alberta Region, commended the First Nation for its handling of the situation, saying it is doing “an excellent job” of contact tracing and testing and that is why subsequent cases were identified following the initial case.
“When the cases first come, I work really closely with nurses to ensure the cases are isolated and the contact tracing occurs and they are offered testing,” Dr. Sarin said of his role with Alberta First Nations communities in addressing COVID-19. “That’s been a real success over the past week - finding the contacts, offering them testing because they are at highest risk for disease and that’s what lead to the additional cases being found over the last few days.”
Dr. Sarin said Indigenous Services Canada is working closely with the health team on the reserve and providing additional supports as needed in ensuring public health protocols are followed.
“We are monitoring actively and the key priority is to find the cases and offer them isolation supports,” he said. “My expectation is that the band will continue to support the isolation of their band members. And, the public in the First Nation, which they are doing, will be cooperating with the investigation and coming forward for testing when they are sick.”
The challenge lies in the fact the testing and contact tracing has to be sustained over a long period of time, which he likened to running a marathon.
“In the community at large, we need to know where this came from. Did it come from off reserve, which likely it did because this is how these things spread - outside the community to the community. So, we want to find all those cases with the cooperation of the community which is very much happening right now. Testing numbers are going up and people are coming forward,” he said. “My expectation and hope is that we will find these cases and look at their contacts and we won’t get a large outbreak.
In announcing the First Nations initial COVID-19 case on Sept. 7, Chief Eric Shirt said it did come as a shock given the many preventative steps Saddle Lake had undertaken to prevent it from entering the community.
“Our early success was based on a number of things. Number one, we took it to heart that this was an illness that could have very devastating effects in our community,” Shirt said in online video announcement on the Saddle Lake Cree Nation website.
Chief Shirt has urged residents to remain diligent in protecting themselves and others from contracting the disease. He noted the Cree Nation had been six months without a case and said the band will be going back to the basics to prevent any further cases.
“All programs except essential services will be closed during this time,” Shirt said.
He encouraged band members to monitor themselves and if they have symptoms such as a cough, a fever, shortness of breath, running nose or a sore throat to get tested. Contact tracing is ongoing and the close contacts of those with confirmed cases are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days.
As of yesterday, no additional cases had been confirmed, and 726 tests had been completed.
From now to Friday, appointments can be made for testing at the Saddle Lake Health Centre between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Drive-thru testing is being done from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. with no appointment necessary.
“We want to take the stigma away from the virus if you do have it. There’s no shame attached to it because we don’t know where it came from so you are not to blame,” Shirt said in his online message to his community.
He said the band is encouraging everyone to get tested, even if they are not experiencing any symptoms because they may be asymptomatic.
All residents are being asked to stay home and avoid contact with other people as much as possible, especially with seniors and those with chronic illnesses. Masks must be worn in all public places.
Derrick Houle, Director of Emergency Management, said in a community update on Sept. 10 that additional nursing support has been received for testing and tracing, and he stressed the important work the health care team on the Nation is doing to prevent the spread of the disease.
Houle made special mention of people who attended a funeral on the reserve Sept. 1 between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., telling them it is important they be tested.
Saddle Lake schools were set to reopen Sept. 21 with buses also scheduled to start transporting students on and off-reserve to school at that time. As of press deadline that date has now been pushed back to Oct. 5.