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Blueberry First Nations Warned of COVID-19 Threat. Now the Pandemic Has Reached Them

Province is promising more support and faster testing for Indigenous, remote communities.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 23 Apr

Amanda Follett Hosgood is the Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives amidst the stunning mountains and rivers of Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

As spring hits northern B.C., being cooped up in a Fort St. John apartment is the last place Riley Apsassin, an avid outdoorsman and otherwise healthy 29-year-old, wants to be.

But as the third member of the Blueberry River First Nations to test positive for COVID-19, he would do anything to keep his community safe.

“I don’t want anybody else to feel what I’m feeling,” says Apsassin, who began experiencing symptoms April 13 as he was preparing to head back to work as a heavy equipment operator on the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Instead, he went to the hospital, where he was tested for COVID-19 and sent home. Last Thursday, he received a positive diagnosis.

One week later, Apsassin says he feels worse than ever, with body aches, fever and difficulty breathing. A nurse calls regularly to check his condition and someone from his home community drops off food. Otherwise he is battling the illness alone.

“I feel pretty tired and like I’m overheating,” says Apsassin, still groggy from a midday nap. “I’m at the point right now where it’s pretty bad, so I’m just going to ride it out, see how it goes.”

Apsassin isn’t sure where he contracted the illness. His aunt, Tracy Paquette, and one other person from Blueberry River First Nations have also been diagnosed. His work takes him to various job sites throughout the region, but he hadn’t worked for about a month before his diagnosis.

Paquette’s case was confirmed in Fort St. John earlier this month and she was medevaced to Prince George shortly after. Apsassin says his aunt is currently in stable condition at the University Hospital of Northern BC, one of three COVID-19 primary care facilities in the north.

Paquette, who is in her late 40s, is a health-care worker at the Peace Villa long-term care home in Fort St. John. The facility is not listed among the 19 long-term care and assisted-living homes currently affected by the pandemic.

But Apsassin says he hadn’t been back to the Blueberry River First Nations or been in contact with his aunt for over a month.

“Don’t get me wrong, I miss the place,” he says. His family, including a grandmother, are on the reserve of about 200 people located 70 kilometres north of Fort St. John.

They are the reason he’s staying away. “That’s the main concern right now. That’s why I don’t want to go near them, is because of our Elders.”

The Blueberry River First Nations has been raising concerns about the dangers of infections from nearby work camps and construction projects since late March.

In a March 30 letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan, Chief Marvin Yahey Sr. called on the province to suspend construction on Site C and close its camp facilities, citing “serious concern” with BC Hydro’s continued work on the project during the pandemic.

He said the continued work on the hydroelectric project is inconsistent with the government’s overall response to the pandemic.

Construction has been declared an essential service by the province and rules banning gatherings of more than 50 people do not apply to work sites. Concerns have been raised about large industrial projects continuing in the north, where medical resources are limited.

“Site C is not like residential and commercial construction projects occurring elsewhere; it is a mega project in a small community, with a disproportionate risk,” the chief’s letter says.

“The matter is of grave concern to us. As a First Nations community that has faced generations of displacement, marginalization and poor living conditions, our members have heightened vulnerability to infection, illness and death from COVID-19. As a remote community, our ability to access adequate health services is already compromised, and will be more so under the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Human health and life must be prioritized over project economics and construction timelines.”

Site C, Kitimat’s LNG Canada terminal and the Coastal GasLink pipeline all say they have scaled back their workforces in response to COVID-19, although camps continue to host hundreds of workers. On Wednesday, Site C was reporting 961 workers in camp; six were in isolation with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. It says it has not been notified of any confirmed cases at the worksite.

851px version of StewartPhillip.jpg
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip: 'It’s not appropriate to jeopardize... northern Indigenous communities and mainstream communities by not taking incredibly rigorous, strict measures with the industrial work camps.' Photo by David P. Ball.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs echoes the Blueberry River chief’s concerns.

“There’s no question that we felt that the failure on the part of governments to shut down large-scale industrial projects like the Site C dam project and the oilsands project was a contradiction of public policy in regard to social distancing and all the mitigated measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic,” Phillip says.

“You can’t expect to have the general population follow very rigorous and strict practices and yet allow industry just to continue in very concentrated and close proximity.”

Chief Yahey, in his letter to the premier, also cited concerns about what the loss of Elders would mean for the community.

“We are very concerned for our Elders. Our Elders are central to our community; we rely upon them for leadership, community cohesion and transmission of our culture,” the letter says. He adds that homes on reserve often house multiple generations and substandard living conditions in many residences add to the urgency.

“In a community as small as ours, loss of even one Elder is challenging for our people; loss of multiple Elders to an outbreak would be devastating to community leadership and cohesion and to BRFN [Blueberry River First Nations] cultural transmission,” the letter says.

This week the province announced new measures to protect residents of rural, remote and Indigenous communities. The initiative includes improved medical transportation, increased options for self isolating and faster test results for those living in the north.

Indigenous communities have long expressed concern about the pandemic spreading in remote areas. Most communities have few medical resources and are serviced by small health centres staffed by one or two nurses. Crowded housing conditions make physical distancing difficult and isolating impossible.

The number of infections in the Northern Health Authority increased to 40 on Wednesday, up from 30 cases a week earlier — a significant jump, given the slow creep of the region’s positive cases over the past weeks.

Some of the new cases were linked to workers returning from Imperial Oil's Kearl Lake oilsands facility in Alberta, which has a COVID-19 outbreak, according to B.C. health officials. On Tuesday, the northern Alberta work camp was reporting 23 positive cases.

The province also announced a “new collaborative framework” between the First Nations Health Authority, Northern Health and Provincial Health Services Authority to address gaps in health care for rural and remote areas.

Premier John Horgan said the initiative has been in the works for several years.

“Every community in B.C. is working hard to keep people healthy and safe,” he said. “People living in rural, remote and Indigenous communities have unique challenges in accessing the health care they need.”

The announcement included a promise to add seven medical aircraft and 55 ambulances across the province. Six of the new ambulances will be in the Northern Health Authority.

Northern Health makes up the two-thirds of the province and travel time to labs in the south have meant testing delays of up to two weeks.

It’s something that the province is trying to fix, says Northern Health media relations manager Eryn Collins.

Collins says daily flights are now scheduled to carry specimens from Terrace, Fort St. John and Prince George for testing in Vancouver, in addition to as-needed flights from Dease Lake and Fort Nelson.

“Our focus has been on improving the transportation of COVID-19 swab specimens and on adding testing capability in the Northern Health region,” Collins says.

In addition, University Hospital of Northern BC recently adapted its GeneXpert molecular testing machine to begin COVID-19 testing in Prince George and Mills Memorial Hospital in Terrace is in the process of getting testing capabilities. A third machine is expected for the northeast, Collins says.

Grand Chief Phillip says the measures don’t go far enough.

“It’s not appropriate to jeopardize the safety, health and well-being of northern Indigenous communities and mainstream communities by not taking incredibly rigorous, strict measures with the industrial work camps,” he says.

As the province works to address health-care challenges in remote areas, Apsassin continues to hunker down in Fort St. John in an effort to keep his family safe. When he’s better, the first thing he’ll do is head into the backcountry to go fishing.

“I miss fishing. I’ve been watching fishing on YouTube all day,” he says.

“If you get this sickness, who knows who you’re going to pass it onto. It could be one of your loved ones that’s sick, that has bad heart disease that you don’t know about or that has major medical issues. I’m healthy. I’m going to get through this. But it’s just looking out for the other people that don’t have great medical conditions.”  [Tyee]

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