WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Coronavirus infections are multiplying through a remote indigenous Saskatchewan village even as the rest of the western Canadian province sees few cases and starts to reopen its economy.
Saskatchewan, nearly the size of Texas, had only 17 active cases in its most populated southern areas, but 148 active cases in its far north as of Friday.
La Loche, population 2,400, along with neighboring Clearwater River Dene Nation, is home to 125 of those, according to its Emergency Operations Center. Two residents have died of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus.
Larger Canadian outbreaks have hit Alberta meat plants and Quebec nursing homes, but the pandemic brings unique challenges to La Loche, an impoverished community.
Outbreaks among indigenous communities are especially concerning to Canadian health officials, given problems often already present, such as overcrowded housing.
The virus has spread in La Loche mostly by young people drinking together and ignoring social distancing requirements, northern medical health officer Dr. Rim Zayed said on Thursday, on a website containing updates for the area.
“Young people think they’re invincible because they are not in too much danger, but the elderly and vulnerable are,” Mayor Robert St. Pierre said in a post, urging people to stay at home. “We are very concerned about them getting sick.”
La Loche’s cases are mostly young people, and there are no hospitalizations so far. Health authorities have linked the outbreak to infections at an Alberta oil sands site that has spread across several provinces.
La Loche, 600 kilometers (373 miles) north of Saskatchewan’s biggest city, Saskatoon, is all too familiar with tragedy. A shooting spree by a teenager in 2016 killed four people and injured seven others.
Health officials are now going door to door in the village, checking for symptoms and conducting tests.
The provincial government has banned non-critical travel into northern Saskatchewan, enforced by highway checkpoints.
“I would ask the youth in La Loche to take their personal responsibility very, very seriously and pay attention to how they can physically distance,” Premier Scott Moe told reporters.
One of La Loche’s two grocery stores closed this week after a worker tested positive, but was expected to reopen on Saturday.
Saskatchewan began restoring services such as dentistry on Monday, but not in La Loche. The province will open retail stores, hair salons and other services on May 19.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Leslie Adler