As Yukon medical officials continue to report new COVID-19 cases daily, some First Nations are expressing serious anxieties about the pending relaxations in rules.
Officials reported nine new confirmed cases on Friday. With recoveries, that brought the active case count to 77.
The locations are split between Whitehorse and communities, with one of the hardest-hit being Watson Lake. There are 11 confirmed cases there, according to reports from the Watson Lake Wellness Healthcare News Facebook page.
“There is NO need to panic, but… we have been seeing an alarming increase in positive COVID cases in our community over the past week,” a post on the page stated.
“Currently we have 11 active COVID cases – five were diagnosed today. I do not want people to panic. But there is a need for us all to be a bit more vigilant in the coming weeks. Remember the ‘Safe 6 plus 1’ I know we’re all tired and fed up with COVID.
“But we need to do this now more than ever to protect our community members who are at risk and to protect our children and those who can’t get the vaccine.”
Meanwhile, the fallout continues amongst First Nations communities over the government’s plan to greatly loosen restrictions on Aug. 4.
The changes affect mask-wearing, isolation requirements and bar and restaurant capacities.
Doris Bill, the chief of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, expressed strong reservations about the plans to CBC North late last week. She has not responded to the Star’s request for an interview about her concerns.
Chief Steve Smith of the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation told the Star this morning he is ambivalent about the situation.
In the big picture sense, Smith said the move might “be a good thing,” but he didn’t like the timing nor the top-down manner in which it was delivered.
He said his government wasn’t consulted. Rather, the Liberal government told him and his council what it had planned shortly before the public announcement last Wednesday – without any consultation.
“That concerns me because First Nations cases have spiked,” Smith said. “That’s a serious concern.
“It’s not a true consultation or discussion. It’s more of the old way of doing things. We talk of reconciliation and respect, and there’s none of it here.”
Smith also questioned the two weeks’ notice, saying that was a bad idea because “people will want to move to the (less-restricted) stage immediately, particularly not wearing their masks.”
Even with many First Nations opposing the move, Smith said, he doubts the Yukon government will budge on the issue.
“Not if past history is an example, they won’t,” he said.
The Carcross-Tagish First Nation (CTFN) provided the Star with the following statement:
“The COVID-19 pandemic and public health restrictions are a delicate and difficult balance for governments to strike. People are scared, and rightfully so.
“We always support a consensus view of Yukon First Nations. If they feel they want to pause the opening, we support them,” the CTFN said.
“At the same time, we believe in the Yukon Government’s guidance and the guidance across the country that says we can move towards opening safely now. There are obvious risks from COVID-19, but there are many costs to staying closed down too.
“All evidence points to COVID-19 staying with us for the long term,” the CTFN added. “We have to learn to live with it.
“The best thing we can do to continue our normal lives is to get vaccinated. The vaccine doesn’t mean you won’t get sick, but your chances of serious illness are greatly reduced.
“We know the current Yukon outbreak has disproportionally affected First Nations people. We encourage our citizens and everyone to get the vaccine. We will be keeping a close eye on continued developments of the pandemic as we move forward.”
The Ross River Dena Council (RRDC) posted the following latest and lengthy advisory on its Facebook page over the weekend.
“The Ross River Dena Council advises all community members that as of 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 24, there is one confirmed case of COVID-19 in Ross River. The individual has been self-isolating since last Sunday along with a second individual who is required to self-isolate under the current COVID-19 guidelines, as enforced under the Civil Emergency Measures Act,” the RRDC added.
It’s closely monitoring the Watson Lake/Lower Post outbreak.
“This particular outbreak is concerning due to the volume of non-essential travel observed between Watson Lake/Lower Post, Ross River and other neighbouring communities in recent weeks,” the RRDC said.
“Council advises that while essential travel (i.e. for medical reasons) is reasonable during the current outbreak, non-essential travel poses an extreme risk to the well-being of our elders, our families and our entire community.”
The council provided a troubling example of how easy potential transmission can be.
“The latest example of how dangerous non-essential community-to-community travel can be was discovered on Friday.
“A resident of Watson Lake drove through Whitehorse to Ross River on Thursday to drop off a family member at Ross River Airport. The family member joined workers from multiple communities on a charter flight to a nearby mine.
“The driver opted to stay in Ross River Thursday night and met with multiple community members before returning to Whitehorse on Friday,” the RRDC said.
“Once in Whitehorse, the individual went for a COVID-19 test at the rapid testing facility. The test result was positive.
“Out of respect for those who may have been exposed, the individual posted the test result on Facebook late Friday evening and apologized, expressing sincere concern for the community members involved.” the RRDC said.
“Without question, it is a truly unfortunate situation that could lead to more cases in the coming days, and it reminds us of just how quickly an innocent visit can change a community’s COVID-19 outlook.
“At this time, Council is asking all community members to please remain calm, please avoid non-essential travel, continue to practice the Safe 6+1 and work together to support everyone involved.”
The council’s travel advisory remains in effect
“With a growing outbreak in a neighbouring community and an unprecedented outbreak still under way across Yukon, Council is once again asking Yukoners and travellers from outside of the territory to please respect the travel advisory for Ross River, which reads as follows:
NO VISITORS PLEASE – Travellers are asked to refrain from visiting Ross River at this time;
ESSENTIAL TRAVEL ONLY – Community members are asked to refrain from travelling to other communities unless it is absolutely essential (i.e. for medical reasons).”
In the statement, the council took some issue with easing the health restrictions.
“It means that our elders, our families and the vulnerable members of our community must now prepare for even greater risk.
“Council does not support Wednesday’s announcement, and is disappointed that the community with the lowest vaccination rate in Yukon – and therefore the highest risk – has still not been respectfully and meaningfully consulted about such an important decision,” the RRDC said.
It plans to engage with Dr. Brendan Hanley, the chief medical health officer, the Department of Health and Social Services and others “to explore all available options and solutions, such as re-enforcing the current travel advisory with new COVID-19 safety measures that work to strengthen community-level support for unvaccinated and partially-vaccinated members of our community and new partnerships with our neighbours that will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 to vulnerable populations across rural Yukon in the weeks and months ahead.”
The Little Salmon-Carmacks First Nation is also reporting one case of COVID-19 in the community.
It’s asking people to “immediately stop partying around with no regard for social isolation and safety guidelines. If you have been in any of the parties between July 14 and 21, we strongly encourage you to immediately self-isolate and seek medical help of you have any COVID-19 symptoms.”
This morning, the territorial government provided the Star with a statement saying it continues to follow Hanley’s recommendations.
“As a result of high vaccine uptake and decreasing case counts in the territory, and based on new recommendations from the chief medical officer of health, we are planning to lift some restrictions on August 4th.
“We will continue to work closely with the office of the chief medical officer of health and our First Nations and municipal partners to protect the health and safety of Yukoners as we look to emerge from the pandemic and get on the path to recovery.”