COVID-19 testing begins for remote Inuit coastal community in N.L. after presumptive case

COVID-19 testing began Thursday and will continue Friday in the small Labrador coastal community of Makkovik, the Nunatsiavut government says, as part of the public health response to a presumptive positive case of the virus in the Inuit town.

Anyone can get a test, even if they have not travelled and do not have any symptoms of COVID-19. 

“Today and tomorrow will be very busy, hard days,” Gerald Asivak, the minister of health and social development, told CBC Radio’s Labrador Morning on Thursday.

“We’re going to ensure that we meet our standards, with the province, Dr. Fitzgerald, around what needs to be done,” he said, referring to Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer of health. 

Asivak said “a great, caring team” of public health nurses in the isolated, largely Inuit community of about 400 people on Labrador’s north coast will receive support from nurses from Labrador-Grenfell Health on Thursday for testing and contact tracing efforts.

Labrador-Grenfell Health alerted the government about the case Wednesday evening, Asivak said.

Presumptive cases need to be checked in a St. John’s laboratory to be confirmed, but are treated the same as confirmed cases, with the person asked to self-isolate and close contacts advised to quarantine.

About 74 per cent of eligible adults in Makkovik have received both doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Regardless of vaccinations, Asivak said, all people in the community will be tested. (Submitted by Cathy Ford)

Testing got underway at noon on Thursday, in collaboration with the Nunatsiavut government’s Department of Health and Social Development, according to a media release. 

“Community members will be notified by Nunatsiavut government through Facebook and phone on when they should arrive,” reads the statement. 

People should bring their provincial health card and physically distance while waiting for a swab. 

How flight suspensions will affect special ballots

In winter, Makkovik is accessible only by air or snowmobile. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the community has been effectively cut off from the outside world, with all regular flights in and out suspended, save for medical emergencies. 

People are also being asked to keep contacts within their own households and to refrain from visiting neighbouring communities by snowmobile.

Those flight suspensions are “most definitely a concern for Elections NL,” according to a statement provided by a spokesperson on Thursday. 

Elections NL will continue to accept special ballot voting kits from electors in this region after the March 5 deadline. 

“Special ballot votes are counted district-by-district and we will adjust our plans to count Torngat Mountains later in the process to allow for late arrivals,” reads the statement. It said the same would be done for any other are communities that might be impacted. 

Presumptive positive comes as a ‘shock’

The presumptive positive case is related to travel from the St. John’s area, the epicentre of an ongoing outbreak involving the contagious B117 variant of the virus. That outbreak led Fitzgerald to move the entire province back into lockdown last Friday, with restrictions allowing movement within the province for essential reasons only.

Everyone in Makkovik is worried, said Barry Andersen, the town’s AngujukKak, or mayor. The news of the presumptive case came as a “shock,” he said in an open letter to the community.

Labrador has not had a positive case of COVID-19 in months, although its health authority has now increased testing in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Labrador City in light of the outbreak in the St. John’s area.

Speaking to CBC News, Andersen said people in Makkovik are used to travelling outside the community to receive medical care, and he urged kindness under the current circumstances.

“If you have to go to St. John’s for medical reasons, it’s a pretty serious situation for a person’s health. So I’m just urging people to show compassion for the individual in question here,” Andersen said.

“I’m sure in a small community it won’t be long before word gets out who it might be and that kind of thing.”

Nunatsiavut’s health minister says tight restrictions are in place in Makkovik to prevent a potential outbreak in the community. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

An emotional Asivak fought back tears as he updated CBC on the discovery of the case later Thursday.

“We can look back to 1918 with the Spanish Flu, and how many people died from that pandemic,” Asivak said, referring to the disease that ripped through Labrador’s isolated Inuit communities, killing one-third of the population.

“It would be naive to say no, it’s not going to come to Labrador.”

Asivak said while there’s no full-time doctor in Makkovik, three public health nurses have flown into the community as a result of the presumptive case. Asivak says it’s too early to tell if the virus has spread. 

Vaccine update

Almost 74 per cent of eligible adults in Makkovik have been vaccinated for COVID-19, receiving both doses of the Moderna vaccine, which is not approved for use in people younger than 18. 

Asivak said even those vaccinated will be tested as part of the contact-tracing effort.

The vaccine uptake “may be a help in curtailing spread in our community,” said Andersen.

Asivak said that the presumptive positive test is being flown to St. John’s. He said the government will update residents on its status hopefully as soon as Friday.

“We’re hopeful and optimistic that it does come back negative.”

‘The person is doing well’

Citing the person’s privacy, Asivak did not give details but said “the person is doing well,” and being supplied with everything they need, from food to mental health support.

Part of the contact tracing efforts will involve passengers on any flights the person was on, he said. Many people from Makkovik must go to St. John’s for medical treatment, and Asivak said he knew of other people postponing or cancelling appointments as worry grips the community.

“I can appreciate people being anxious and scared,” he said, as he asked that people “work together and remain calm” in the coming days. 

With the lockdown already in place, Andersen said sporting events and other gatherings in Makkovik have been cancelled for days and town facilities closed. He said he hoped those restrictions would curtail any potential spread.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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