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Nearly 30 COVID-19 cases reported between two northern B.C. First Nation bands

Health officers reminding communities to follow safety protocols to combat virus
Smithers Autumn - Getty Images
B.C.'s Bulkley Valley in the fall. (via Getty Images)

Two northern B.C. communities are being warned by their respective health officers of a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases.

The Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation reported 13 more cases on Thursday (Sept. 24), while the Witset First Nation has tallied 14 positive tests as of Saturday (Sept. 26).

On Thursday (Sept. 24), Northern Health listed Nak’albun Elementary School on its exposure list, indicating a potential spread of the virus at the independent institution in Fort St. James between Sept. 16 and 18.

Later that day, it was confirmed that the region’s second COVID-linked death was a 60-year-old female elder in the Nak’azdli Whut’en band after a lengthy battle in hospital, the same territory the school is situated on.

In a Facebook LIVE post, Nak’azdli Whut’en Chief Aileen Prince blamed the spread of the disease due to people not wearing face masks, physical distancing and staying home, and noted B.C. has the highest number of active COVID-19 cases per capita in Canada.

“As you know things are getting very serious,” she said. “We have a lot of people in our community that are ill and we’re really trying to get the messaging out that we need to be more careful.”

Despite the number of cases, the disease has not been declared an outbreak by Northern Health with the authority explaining it would make communities aware of an outbreak when deemed necessary.

A total of 26 cases were identified in an outbreak at Haida Gwaii that was declared over on Aug. 28.

“If we want COVID-19 to be out of here, it starts with me,” said Nak’azdli Whut’en Health Manager Verne Tom Sr.

“So what I’m going to do as an individual is I’m going to keep the mask on, I’m going to keep my bubble small and I’m going to ensure that I’m washing my hands constantly.”

Nak’azdli Whut’en is set to bring security personnel to help ensure people are following COVID-19 guidelines issued by health officials and businesses are not allowing more people in their facility than they should.

“I know it’s hard, and we’re probably not seeing the end of it,” Prince said.

“I’m hoping that people will keep doing what they’re doing in terms of supporting the people, the families that have been affected so far. Keep supporting them, keep sending them love, bringing them food, keep praying for them, keep sending them good thoughts, and keep your circles small but keep your community caring large.”

Meanwhile, 350 km northwest to Smithers, the Witset First Nation says it has 14 positive cases.

The band is also encouraging its community to stick to their bubbles and follow safety protocols as directed by the province.

“This is not about individuals, it is about taking measure to eliminate the threat of COVID-19 and protect ourselves and our families,” says Witset Health Director Beverley Clifton in a statement.

“We are in this for the long haul and it requires to reduce our contacts, “Stick to Six.” Our bubble is important as we enter the fall and winter seasons.

Clifton adds residents need to stick to lockdown rules during the unprecedented time.

As of Sept. 24, Indigenous Services Canada said it is aware of 143 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on B.C. First Nations Reserves.

Northern Health currently has 289 positive tests confirmed since March, when the virus hit the region, including 45 active cases, two deaths and 242 recoveries. 

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is scheduled to provide a COVID-19 update this afternoon (Sept. 28).

Her briefing will be for cases reported positive over the last three days.

- with files from Rebecca Dyok, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter