In spite of the optimism of Premier Scott Moe with regard to Saskatchewan’s ability to “flatten the curve”, the province’s COVID-19 nightmare is not over yet.

This is something residents of Saskatchewan’s North, particularly the La Loche and Clearwater River Dene Nation area, know all too well as, this past weekend, La Loche experienced its first COVID-19 related death.

Joseph Sylvestre, 83 – the first resident of La Loche’s long-term care facility to be diagnosed with the virus – died in a North Battleford hospital April 26.
“The Northern Village of La Loche wishes to extend its sympathy to Joseph (Pierre Bannock) Sylvestre’s family,” the village stated via its social media account. “We can only imagine your pain at his loss, especially during these difficult times with COVID-19 threatening us all and interfering with normal grieving processes.”

Sylvestre’s death was the fifth in the province as a result of COVID-19. The province’s sixth death was announced April 29 and reported to be another resident of the La Loche Health Centre.

COVID-19 was first identified in the La Loche and CRDN communities last week when six cases were initially reported. That number has since risen to more than 35.

The province is also doing its part. Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, signed a public health order April 24 restricting all non-critical travel into the North, specifically the Northern Saskatchewan Administration District. Shahab also issued a strong recommendation against non-essential travel between northern communities. Checkpoints have been established along all highways leading into the region.

“Social housing units are already being provided for individuals who need to self-isolate,” Moe remarked. “I have directed the school in La Loche also be made available for this purpose and the Public Safety Agency provide mobile housing units – work-camp trailers – for individuals who need to self-isolate.”

To date, other measures taken include strengthened protections and protocols around infection control at the local long-term care facility and additional personal protective equipment has been provided to the La Loche Health Centre. Regular COVID-19 updates and information are also being provided via radio in four languages – English, Cree, Dene and Michif, while two emergency services officers from the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency have been deployed to the communities.

“We hope all in the community realize, to prevent COVID-19 from claiming more lives, we must stop the virus from moving,” village officials noted. “We must do all we can to protect our most vulnerable citizens… La Loche’s success in stopping the spread of COVID-19 depends on all of us doing our part.”

Meanwhile, Moe said – even though Saskatchewan has successfully reduced the spread of COVID-19 – isolated outbreaks are still expected.
“Our health system and our government is prepared to take immediate action to respond to these outbreaks and that’s what we are doing today in the North,” he said.

However, in response to this, Athabasca NDP MLA Buckley Belanger voiced his frustration at what he called the provincial government’s failure to take the concerns of northerners seriously.

“Northern people have been asking the province to protect us for weeks to keep the virus out of the North,” Belanger said. “Now that it’s here, they’re finally imposing elevated restrictions to keep it from spreading south. Where are the measures we need to keep our communities safe and our people healthy?”

As a result of the ongoing crisis in the North, the province’s Reopen Saskatchewan Plan will not currently apply to La Loche (also Lloydminster). Meanwhile, a positive case of COVID-19 has been confirmed at the Beauval General Store. The store has temporarily closed its doors to conduct a thorough cleaning while employees have been instructed to self-isolate.

As of this week’s news deadline, a total of 383 COVID-19 cases had been confirmed throughout Saskatchewan, as well as 291 recoveries.

by Phil Ambroziak