Province to work one-on-one with Hutterite communities after 44 cases detected at colony east of Melfort

Premier praises vast majority of Hutterite colonies that have taken measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, but stresses that more has to be done to bring high case numbers under control

Premier Scott Moe provides a COVID-19 update in Regina on April 15. -- Screen caption from Government of Saskatchewan Facebook page.

Saskatchewan’s Premier spoke directly to the province’s Hutterite community on Wednesay as a further 44 cases were reported in a communal living setting, this time at a Hutterite colony in the RM of Star City east of Melfort, Sask.

“This is a very serious situation for our province,” Scott Moe said.

Those 44 cases were among the 50 reported in Saskatchewan Wednesday afternoon. The other six cases are split amongst the south (three), Regina (two) and Central regions.

There are 15 people in the hospital. Of those, five are in intensive care. In total, 1,355 COVID-19 tests were performed in Saskatchewan Tuesday.

The province is working with Hutterite communities across Saskatchewan to get the outbreak under control.

“The vast majority are cooperating and we appreciate that,” Moe said.

“However, there are a few that are not quite as cooperative. They are somewhat resistant to allow tests. Some are telling us that they aren’t willing to change some of their communal practices such as eating and worshipping together in groups larger than what is allowable under the public health order. That said, many are making adjustments and for that I thank them.”

Moe said, though, that while most are cooperating, but a few are not.

“This needs to change immediately,” he said.

Moe said the province has been working with the Hutterian Safety Council for some time, and will now be working directly with Hutterite communities across the province. He said that health ministry and the Saskatchewan Health Authority will be reaching out to each of the province’s 79 Hutterite communities individually to stop the spread of the virus.

“Every single one of us in this province has been asked to, and the vast majority have changed how we are living each and every day,” Moe said in his message to Hutterites.

“You all need to as well. If you don’t, you could get sick. Some in your community will get very sick. Some will die. We want to prevent that and we want to work with you to make sure that occurs. We are prepared to do everything we can to dedicate and rededicate the full resources of the Government of Saskatchewan to ensure that does not happen. But it only works with everyone’s complete cooperation.”

Moe stressed that many communities are cooperating and have changed their practices, and, as a result, some of the province’s Hutterite communities that had cases are now seeing those numbers die down and are on “the backside” of their outbreaks.

“I want to congratulate them and thank them for their efforts,” he said.

“What you are doing is working … well. You’re protecting yourself, you’re protecting your family and you are protecting your community as well as the communities around you you are protecting your neighbours.”

Calls and visits from health ministers and SHA officials will be primarily to offer support and education, but there will also be enhanced testing and contract tracing in the province’s communal living environments. The 44 cases in the north region were detected Tuesday through aggressive contact tracing.

Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said Wednesday that the spread of the virus to the Star City area is evidence that this pandemic isn’t something that’s isolated to one part of the province.

“No part of Saskatchewan is COVID-free,” Shahab said.

“Once it enters a setting where there is close contact, it spreads extremely aggressively and rapidly. We can only flatten the curve if all of us do our part. Any slippage … will result in our collective failure.”

Moe said that of the province’s 322 active cases, 244, or about 75 per cent, are in Hutterite communities. So far, the Hutterite community has had a five per cent infection rate. The province as a whole has an infection rate of one-tenth of one per cent.

“This is as high an infection rate of anything I’m aware of in North America,” Moe said.

“That’s why we’re taking this very seriously. We are providing every opportunity for the Saskatchewan Health Authority to support our Hutterite friends, our Hutterite communities across this province in the same way the Saskatchewan Health Authority reached out to support those … in any other community in the province. They most certainly will be doing that.”

Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding, who will help lead the outreach effort in the coming days, said the focus is on ensuring Hutterite communities are complying with public health orders and doing what is necessary to slow the spread of the virus.

“A lot of compliance is based around education and just even understanding the virus,” he said, adding that he had a conversation Wednesday morning with Hutterite leaders about asymptomatic patients who were still testing positive. His efforts, he said, will include “a lot of education to understand what the risks are with a number of these items.”

His other key message is that time is of the essence.

“We need all of this to happen very quickly. We have a very short amount of time to keep this under control,” he said.

Part of it is also sharing what is working, including in colonies that have reduced their number of active cases or stopped the virus from spreading to their communities altogether, Moe said.

He also stressed that the province isn’t singling out one group of people. Rather, he said, the province has identified communities any time there has been an outbreak — north or south, urban or rural.

The province has decried reports that Hutterite communities and residents are being discriminated against.

“No one in Saskathceawn should stigmatize anyone or should assume that because they may be a Hutterite, they may have COVID,” Moe said.

“There are many communities doing everything they can to ensure that COVID-19 does not enter their community, just like there are many Saskatchewan communities doing the same. For that, I say thank you.”

Speaking to the Herald Monday, Prince Albert author and speaker Mary-Ann Kirkby, the Author of I am Hutttertie, said discrimination against Hutterites has increased since colonies were hit with COVID-19.

“I will say this: Hutterites have been in Canada for 100 years, and they have allowed themselves to be defined by rumours and innuendo,” said Kirkby.

“So when something like COVID happens, all of those underlying misperceptions surface because, for the most part, people have no clue who the Hutterites are.”

On Thursday, Kirkby published a blog post discussing discrimination against Hutterites because of COVID-19. She wrote that while she refuses to stay silent about the misconceptions, she won’t “defend a small minority of Hutterites who have contributed to this unfortunate situation.” 

Still, she said, this doesn’t excuse the public grouping all Hutterites together, assuming all of them have COVID-19. She said she’s heartbroken reading discriminatory comments on social media and seeing Hutterites being rejected from entering certain stores. 

“There are almost 100 Hutterite colonies in Saskatchewan and there’s a handful who have it,” she said. 

“If the public tends to target them and stigmatize them on mass, which is so inappropriate and that’s a huge, huge problem.”

Kirkby said that for the most part, the public trusts that people in larger cities are self-isolating if they have COVID-19. People in Hutterite communities are also isolating, she said. 

“The houses are further apart than many of the houses here. They have gone through great lengths to separate themselves from each other in the sense that they don’t serve in their community kitchen, they don’t go to church, the church service is broadcast through audio systems and into their homes, they carefully go to the kitchen to get their food two by two,” she said. 

“They’ve taken tremendous precaution. Now to see some of their stalls at the farmers’ markets being shunned and they’re being called names is just outrageous, even for those that have no COVID-19 cases in their Hutterite colonies.” 

— With files from Jayda Taylor, Prince Albert Daily Herald