‘There’s a lot of anxiety rising. Everybody’s getting scared’: Kashechewan at COVID-19 breaking point

COVID-19 is bringing the James Bay community of Kashechewan in northeastern Ontario to the breaking point. 

As of Tuesday morning, there were 216 active cases, most of them children. About half a dozen people are so sick that they were airlifted to a hospital in Kingston for treatment. 

They include Celina Wynne’s parents, who arrived in Kingston late last week. Her 78-year-old father, Roy, started having symptoms a few weeks ago, and now everyone in their household of 12 has tested positive.

“I guess she was trying to be strong for the family, and for the household and for my dad also. Little did we know that she was sick too,” Wynne said of her mother.

“My dad is fighting for his life now.”

Rita Wynne, 68, posted a video on Facebook from her hospital bed in Kingston, warning people back home in Kashechewan to take COVID-19 seriously. (Facebook )

Her 68-year-old mother, Rita, is in stable condition, but is lonely and scared, with her husband now in intensive care. She posted a video on Facebook from her hospital bed, warning everyone back home to take the virus seriously.

Wynne says her parents were not vaccinated because of pre-existing health conditions and were waiting to get advice from a doctor on whether they should get the shot or not.

Meanwhile, she is back in Kashechewan trying to look after three households crowded with her relatives who are all infected with COVID-19, running around to keep everyone supplied with food and medicine.

Among them is her 10-year-old son Keewaytin, who has autism and was staying with his grandparents when the outbreak hit.

“I can’t go get him because he’s positive and our home is negative and I can’t provide the things I need to for my son,” said Wynne.

Through all this, she is still putting in 12-hour shifts as one of the only mental-health case managers in the northeastern First Nation of 1,800.

Celina Wynne with her parents Rita and Roy Sr. during happier times at home in Kashechewan. (Facebook)

“I broke down many times during work, driving around and trying to provide services for the community,” Wynne said. 

“Nobody knows which houses are infected and us as essential workers when we go out we’re taking that risk. There’s a lot of anxiety rising. Everybody’s getting scared. They are all cooped up.”

‘It’s a day-by-day thing’

Kashechewan has been through many trying times, including devastating floods and annual evacuations, but Wynne is confident they will get through this as well.

WATCH | Kashechewan residents speak about First Nation’s COVID-19 crisis:

The James Bay community of Kashechewan is dealing with a devastating surge in COVID-19 cases and it’s affecting some of its youngest residents. Some say Ottawa hasn’t moved fast enough to manage the outbreak. 1:59

“It’s a day-by-day thing. We can’t control what happens tomorrow,” said Wynne. 

“I believe in the Creator. I believe in my faith that things will turn around.”

Virginia Wesley took a flight to Kingston on her own to be with her 34-year-old son Joey, who was airlifted to the hospital with COVID-19.

She has had little to do other than sit in her hotel room and wait for a call from doctors, while reading about bad news from back home, including that her two granddaughters tested positive.

Virginia Wesley flew to Kingston from James Bay to be with her 34-year-old son Joey, who is being treated for COVID-19. (Facebook)

“It’s spreading so high and fast like a fire,” said Wesley, who is from Kashechewan but now lives in Moose Factory. 

“I’m just hoping they will do something as soon as possible. Like today. Now.”

Even though the isolated communities of Ontario’s Far North were among the first to get the COVID vaccine, she said, Joey has a bad back and it was difficult for him to attend the clinic.

A ventilator is helping him breathe. He was in a medically induced coma for several days before waking up on Monday.

“He called me from the hospital, and he knows that I’m here, and he told me not to worry mommy, that I love you and please pray for me mommy, and I said, ‘Yeah, mommy’s always praying for you,'” Wesley said.

The elementary school in Kashechewan is being set up as a makeshift medical clinic so the community’s health centre can focus on COVID-19 patients. (Erik White/CBC)

Health officials say about 70 per cent of adults on the James Bay were vaccinated, but more than half of the cases in Kashechewan are children under 17 who weren’t eligible to get the shot until recently.

Officials say no one who has tested positive during this recent outbreak was vaccinated. 

The federal government is sending 16 Canadian Rangers to Kashechewan to help with the delivery of food and supplies, as only essential workers are allowed to leave their homes. 

Fifteen nurses are also being sent to the community, plus another 10 are helping out remotely with contact tracing and case management. 

The First Nation says the plan is to set up an isolation centre in the high school and convert the elementary school into a medical clinic so the health centre can focus on treating COVID-19 patients.

But the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents several First Nations in northeastern Ontario, says the federal government was too slow to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak on the James Bay Coast, and is calling for a public inquiry.  

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