‘I don’t want us to lose anybody’: Shamattawa grandfather fears for family after testing positive for COVID-19

A grandfather in a northern Manitoba First Nation fears he’ll soon lose someone he loves after he, his son, his daughter, his son-in-law and his two young grandchildren all tested positive for COVID-19.

“I don’t want us to lose anybody here,” said Roy Miles, who lives in Shamattawa First Nation, where cases of COVID-19 have skyrocketed in recent days.

Miles lives in a home with 10 other people, including his children and grandchildren — a two-year-old boy and two-month-old girl. He started feeling sick on Wednesday and on Friday, he and his family found out they had COVID-19.

On Monday, he said all the people in his home had tested positive, except for four residents who haven’t sought testing yet.

“We need to flatten the curve [and] get this thing in control,” he said.

In the past two weeks, cases of COVID-19 in Shamattawa have surged from only a few in mid-November to 195 as of Sunday evening. Dozens of people in the fly-in community of roughly 1,300 are now isolating elsewhere, and about 20 are in quarantine in the area’s gymnasium.

“Every second day it goes up by 30 to 40 new cases,” Miles said Monday.

The Canadian Armed Forces announced Saturday it will sent six Canadian Rangers to the First Nation, which is about 745 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. But Chief Eric Redhead has said that won’t be enough, as the community faces challenges like overcrowding in homes and elders falling ill.

“My fear is … losing people from this. [I have] more concern for the elders and for the people that are sick,” Miles said.

There are 195 cases of COVID-19 in Shamattawa as of Sunday evening, out of roughly 1,300 people who live in the community. (Submitted by Eric Redhead)

Housing shortage

Housing issues in Shamattawa have made it more difficult for some to self-isolate, Miles said.

Everyone in his house is self-isolating, but that makes life harder for his mother-in-law, who lives in a home with no heating system or hot water. She would often visit Miles’s home to do laundry and use the washroom, he said, which she can’t do now.

“They don’t even have … bedroom doors, all they use is just blankets for doors. That’s how bad it is,” he said. “They look after their place, but still, they need hot water there and also heat.”

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), which represents northern Manitoba First Nations, issued a statement Monday calling on Indigenous Services Canada and the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation to take immediate action to improve the housing situation.

“In some communities, we have heard of people covering bedroom doors with plastic to create a space where someone can self-isolate away from the rest of their loved ones,” MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said in the news release.

“Many homes only have one bathroom so unfortunately, in some cases people are using pails within their rooms so they can keep themselves separated from others in the homes. This is extremely disappointing and impacts people’s overall dignity and safety.”

The community only has winter roads that will soon be up and running, but it means there’s only a short window when it will be safe to ship building supplies into the area, MKO said.

Housing challenges are among the reasons it’s essential to prioritize First Nations when planning the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine, the group said in its release.

“We are urging both the province and feds to include us and create a seat for First Nations leadership and expertise at the tables they have created for developing vaccine rollout plans,” Settee said.

‘Really stressful’

Miles said so far his symptoms have not gotten much worse or better since first arising on Wednesday. He lost his appetite but his fatigue has lifted somewhat, he said.

“It’s really stressful — not only for me, a lot of people,” he said about being sick. “Even to get the essential stuff from the store, it’s pretty hard.”

The six Canadian Rangers are expected to arrive in the community soon, and stay for a 30-day period.

They’ll help with providing essentials such as food, firewood and care packages, as well as logistical and general support like transportation assistance, resupply and humanitarian assistance.

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