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First Nations Health Authority chief medical officer concerned with rising COVID-19 cases

The B.C. First Nations Health Authority acting chief medical officer Dr. Shannon McDonald said she knows all too well the emotional toll that restrictions designed to keep COVID-19 at bay have had.

It was almost three months until she could see her own grandson when the rapidly-spreading novel coronavirus was first declared a global pandemic.

“The biggest challenge is people are tired of COVID but COVID isn’t tired of us,” McDonald told Black Press Media.

Since March, 495 positive cases of the disease within status First Nations people in B.C. have been confirmed.

As of Sept. 29 there were 178 active cases and eight deaths.

“Any case is concerning but we have seen a significant rise,” McDonald said.

“Any time there’s interaction between human beings right now there’s a risk of COVID, so we’re seeing a couple of circumstances where there have been social events or family gatherings.”

Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller said Indigenous communities have been facing an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases during the last few weeks.

In late June, McDonald praised the efforts of B.C. First Nations to keep COVID-19 rates low and said they were working.

Three months later she said she still stands behind that statement.

“I would say that probably 70 to 80 per cent of our population is doing an amazing job of following public health advice,” McDonald said.

As people continue to struggle with the limitations COVID-19 has placed upon their daily lives, McDonald said there remains understandable fear and anxiety amongst Indigenous people.

“In the context of the communities that we work with there has been some ugly history that’s alive and well in the hearts and minds of First Nations people around smallpox and other diseases that came and wiped out entire communities,” she said.

“But pretty universally the virus [COVID-19] has been brought into the community by community members themselves or their family, and that’s been a hard message to give.”

Numerous events and gatherings have been cancelled, and funerals, which often attract many family members to send the spirit of their loved one onto the next world, are being urged to be kept small.

“Those are things that we could not do in these circumstances, and thank God we didn’t because all of the kids would have had to go home to their communities and potentially put others at risk,” McDonald said of the Junior All Native Basketball Tournament and Gathering Our Voices conference, both of which were quashed earlier this year.

With winter now approaching and a new flu season on the way, McDonald said FNHA is working with their provincial and federal partners on ensuring adequate access to flu immunization and continued messaging on how people can keep themselves safe.

As of Sept 17, the FNHA had supplied more than 1.4 million pieces of personal protective equipment to First Nations communities across B.C.

FNHA has also secured three GeneXpert devices. The rapid COVID-19 diagnostic tools will be utilized in the health regions of Vancouver Island, Interior and North.

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“The first one is going to be turned on and ready to go hopefully in the next couple of weeks,” McDonald said.
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