From the outset of the pandemic, the leadership and health organizations of Moose Cree First Nation and Moosonee prepared for the worst. Even before the province declared its state of emergency, the island had completely shut down in an effort to keep non-residents from spreading the virus to the population. By March 13, non-residents were barred from entering, and non-essential travel outside the home was curtailed. All public functions were cancelled, as were non-essential medical appointments outside the region. The Wetum winter road to Smooth Rock Falls was ordered closed on March 19, and, by April 1, the Mushkegowuk communities had Ontario Northland temporarily stop their Polar Bear Express train to Cochrane.
The Moose Factory Pandemic Emergency Operations Team, which brings together representatives from Moose Cree First Nation, MoCreebec, and the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority, was officially formed on March 10 and consulted with the chief and council on emergency bylaws.
It wouldn’t be until September, though, that the island announced its first case. Health authorities knew they had to act fast: the circumstances of the island made it exceptionally vulnerable to a large outbreak. With its limited supplies and geographical isolation — and a population with a high prevalence of respiratory issues, compromised immune systems, and diabetes — the pandemic team knew the outbreak could be catastrophic. “We're different,” says Chief Mervin Cheechoo, of Moose Cree First Nation. “We don't have the health infrastructure that even Timmins has and [certainly not what] Toronto has.”
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The initial strategy had been clear: keep the virus out. “We always talked about our infrastructure,” says Christina Linklater, community health coordinator at the Moose Factory Health Centre. “In the beginning, it was lack of ventilators, lack of PPE, which has since been fixed.” Linklater had stockpiled supplies from H1N1, but they had only a few weeks’ worth of masks, gloves, and other equipment. By late summer, Linklater says, the hospital had four ventilators. The infrastructure issues run deep: the 70-year-old Weeneebayko General Hospital serves the James Bay region, and communities such as Fort Albany and Attawapiskat — which have only nursing stations and no hospitals of their own — rely on the island’s health facilities. “We’re not just thinking about our little community,” says Linklater. We're thinking about the whole bay,” which is home to about 7,600 people.
The first case was reported on September 12; six days later, a second was announced. A third case was confirmed by September 21, and a fourth discovered on September 25. “We’ve all been called to be concerned about the health and well-being of each other,” Cheechoo said in a video address on September 13. “Let’s do it with love. Let’s do it with kindness. Let’s do it with joy, too, as hard as it is.”
Another consideration was the matter of sending people south for treatment — something the team wanted to avoid. The hospital isn’t considered a critical-care facility, according to Linklater, meaning that life-threatening emergencies or procedures such as chemotherapy and even delivering babies must be done in the south. “We've had to see our people be sent away for different things, like residential schools. There was a tuberculosis outbreak. We don't want to go through that again,” says Linklater.
To help with community buy-in, Linklater drew from Cree culture to explain safety precautions: one Facebook post reads “Be like the goose. They teach us that times we need to land and stay with our flock. Meegwetch.” Another post refers to remaining patient and still during the outbreak, as hunters do during the moose hunt. “When the men go hunting moose, they are so quiet, and they just sit and listen,” Linklater says. “So just the same way as you do when you're hunting moose, you need to just sit for a while and wait.”
Living with the restrictions, especially during the outbreak, “was downright hard,” says Cheechoo, noting that regular community gatherings are part of the culture. Pre-pandemic, funerals were community-wide events; after Cheechoo’s brother died during the lockdown, they were able to hold a funeral only with close family. “When you're grieving and struggling, that’s where community comes in — that's one of the beauties of living in Moose Factory,” says Cheechoo. “Just seeing people supporting you by coming there and eating there, knowing that they're feeling what you're feeling, and we haven’t been able to do it full capacity like we normally have.” To help with the isolation, online and phone counselling were made available through Moose Cree’s health-services department, and people were encouraged to spend time on the land. Record numbers of people went out for the spring and fall moose hunts, Linklater says: “You wouldn't believe the amount of people that got moose this year. It more than I've ever seen, and it was such a blessing to the community.”
On October 6 — nearly two weeks after the last case, and almost a month after the outbreak had begun — all cases were declared resolved. Yolaine Kirlew, director of corporate communications and partnerships at WAHA, has "nothing but praise" for Linklater and the pandemic team's communication with all the agencies involved. "It was a coordinated effort to work with all hands on deck," she says.
One morning after the outbreak was over, Linklater says, she fixed herself a cup of tea and began to cry. “I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I had a cup of tea and just felt relaxed. Usually, I was having a cup of tea to keep going and have some energy.” She’s proud of the community’s efforts and relieved by the success of the outbreak suppression. But with a second wave hitting the south of the province, she knows they haven’t made it through yet. “Every case can be different, so it may not always turn out that way, where everyone comes out of it healthy. We're very, very fortunate that it happened this time.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
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