(This April 28 story corrects nurse employer to federal government from provincial in second paragraph)
By David Jackson
GULL BAY, Ontario (Reuters) - Canada has dispatched nurses to a remote northern indigenous community hit hard by the coronavirus to conduct testing and provide healthcare support, the local leader said on Tuesday.
Gull Bay First Nation, where the first nurse sent by the federal government arrived a week and a half ago and two others are expected in the coming days, has seven confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
But Chief Wilfred King suspects additional cases will occur in the community of 350 people, 200 km (124 miles) north of Thunder Bay, Ontario.
“We anticipate it will get worse rather than better,” King said.
The nursing team now in Gull Bay, including two already stationed there, is carrying out testing and providing care for those who are ill.
The nurses wore blue gloves and yellow disposable gowns to do coronavirus testing in a tent set up in the community. King said he hoped the nurses would stay “as long as possible.”
Outbreaks among indigenous populations have been a cause of concern to public health officials in Canada, given the high proportion of problems already present on Canada’s reserves, such as a lack of clean drinking water and a housing crisis.
That makes following key public health imperatives - washing hands regularly and social distancing - an acute challenge. Many of the communities, like Gull Bay, are often isolated and do not have hospitals.
“This pandemic has exposed the fragility of some of our populations,” Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said on Tuesday, citing indigenous communities as among the most vulnerable.
King said more help was needed.
“This virus doesn’t stop at the Gull Bay First Nation border,” he said. “It can get very bad in this region if this isn’t addressed in a strong meaningful way.”
King believes the cases in the community originated at the Lac Des Isles Mine, a palladium mine operated by Impala Canada, where 20 workers have tested positive for the virus and one has died, and where some 20 members of the community work.
Impala Canada said it had begun to move the mine into care and maintenance mode within two days of the first confirmed case of a worker.
“In everything we are doing right now we are putting health and safety first,” Erin Satterthwaite, vice president of communications, said in a statement to Reuters.
Ontario’s Ministry of Energy and Mines did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reporting by David Jackson in Gull Bay, Ontario; Writing by Moira Warburton; Editing by Steve Scherer and Peter Cooney