The Government of Saskatchewan has ordered an end to all non-essential travel in and out of the northern half of the province as a COVID-19 outbreak continues to spread in the La Loche area.
According to Friday’s case count update, there were ten new cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan along with ten new recoveries. Of the 57 active cases, 25 are in the far north, which includes La Ronge, La Loche and Clearwater River Dene Nation.
There are seven active cases in the northern zone, which includes Prince Albert, Meadow Lake and Battlefords. That zone saw a growth in active cases by two compared to Thursday.
The remaining active cases are spread between Saskatoon (13), Regina (nine), central (two ) and southern (one) Saskatchewan.
The provincial total of cumulative cases is 241. The total number of recoveries sits at 280.
Five people remain in the hospital. The number of people in the ICU has grown from one to two.
Of the province’s 341 cases, 136 are travellers, 145 are community contacts or linked to mass gatherings, 34 have no known exposures and 26 are under investigation by local public health.
According to the Northern Village of La Loche Facebook page, 14 cases of COVID-19 have been tied to La Loche and five to Clearwater Dene First nation.
In response to the growth of cases in the far north, a new public health order was signed by Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab.
The order restricts all non-critical travel into and outside of northern Saskatchewan, specifically the Northern Saskatchewan Administration District. Shahab also urged strongly against all non-essential travel between communities within Northern Saskatchewan.
The northern administration district covers all of the provinces located north of Prince Albert National Park and Meadow Lake Provincial Park. It comes a little bit further south in the east, intersecting with the Manitoba border southeast of Cumberland House.
Checkpoints have been established by northern communities along all highways leading into Northern Saskatchewan. While the checkpoints had only been advisory, Friday’s order provides full legal authority to enforce travel restrictions into the north.
Staffing of the checkpoints will be directed by northern leadership. The provincial government has offered fire suppression staff to support the checkpoints and provide any other support needed. Those fire suppression staff members are based out of La Loche
“This action is being taken in addition to a number of other actions the government has taken to address the outbreak in La Loche and protect northern residents,” the province said in a press release.
Other actions being taken include providing social housing units for individuals to self-isolate. The La Loche school is also being made available for self-isolation and the Public Safety Agency is providing mobile housing units in the form of work-camp trailers for those who need to self-isolate.
Additionally, a new, portable GeneXpert testing unit has been provided for use in La Loche, which will expand testing capacity and shorten turnaround time. More PPE has been provided to the La Loche Health Centre and the province is working with the federal government to obtain additional PPE.
Regular COVID-19 updates and information are being provided on the radio across the north in four languages — English, Cree, Dene and Michif.
Two emergency services officers from the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency have been deployed to the community and the public safety agency is assisting with emergency planning including the training of local emergency officers.
“Our government is in constant contact with … northern leaders and with our health officials in the north as well,” Premier Scott Moe said during a media briefing on Friday.
“We recognize there are unique challenges when an outbreak occurs.”
The travel restriction comes following consultation with northern leaders, Moe said.
“Our health system and our government are prepared to take immediate action to respond to these outbreaks and that’s what we’re doing, in collaboration with our communities in the north.”
The first positive case was identified in La Loche back on April 15 and was tied to travel from an oilsands project north of Fort McMurray, Alta. More positive cases began to emerge from April 17 to 23. So far, two have been identified in long-term care home residents. Both are showing mild symptoms and are being monitored. A third long-term care resident tested negative for the virus.
Shahab said the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) is working with the local community to expand testing and is working to make a wider scope of testing available to get ahead of the contact tracing investigation.
Moe said the province is looking at the best way to provide food for residents self-isolating in the community. He said options such as opening the commercial kitchen in the school or working with other community partners are under consideration.
He added he is still considering a request from northern mayors and the NDP made one day prior for $10 million in direct supports for the region to combat COVID-19.
“We are working very closely with our northern communities, in particular, the community and surrounding area of La Loche,” Moe said.
“I don’t know what the number will be, the financial support we are providing in this instance or in the next number of months … but it will be substantial in the way of providing human resources, in the way of moving in some of the resources we will need to set the school up to house people there … to ensure that those self-isolating will have meals and lunches.
“The resources the community requires, we will work specifically with the community and any other community … on an ongoing basis. The province of Saskatchewan is here for our northern communities.”
Meili renews call for support
Upon hearing a travel ban was being enacted, NDP leader Ryan Meili renewed his call for specific support to address factors that make northern communities more vulnerable to the virus.
“Their failure to act sooner has cost us valuable time,” Meili said in a statement.
“With COVID-19 now spreading in northern communities, it’s essential the province stops reacting and starts acting to get ahead of the virus.”
The call is the fifth one the NDP has put out to address challenges faced by northern and First Nations communities. Previous requests came on April 3,7, 20 and 23.
“Northern people have been asking the province to protect us for weeks to keep the virus out of the north,” said NDP MLA for Athabasca, Buckley Belanger. “Now that it’s here, they’re finally imposing elevated restrictions to keep it from spreading south. Where are the measures we need to keep our communities safe and our people healthy?”
Civilian RCMP member tests positive
One of the new cases of COVID-19 in the north was a civilian employee of the RCMP’s La Loche detachment, the police force said in an emailed statement issued Friday afternoon.
The employee was tested on April 20 and received a positive result on April 23.
The employee immediately self-isolated and remains in self-isolation. Six additional members — two civilians and four officers — have been ordered to self-isolate while waiting for testing.
“Residents in the La Loche RCMP Detachment area will see some new faces in their communities over the next few weeks while our seven employees self-isolate,” the RCMP said in a press release.
“ While the faces may be new, the service the communities receive will remain the same. The Saskatchewan RCMP is following all directions given by the Saskatchewan Health Authority in relation to this positive test result. This includes thoroughly disinfecting the La Loche Detachment, police vehicles and other areas as required.”
The RCMP said it had been preparing for this type of situation for six weeks and has measures in place to ensure there is no disruption in service.