COVID-19 has ‘spread like wildfire’ through Kashechewan — and children are suffering most: Miller

While the number of new COVID-19 cases has dropped precipitously nationwide, Kashechewan First Nation in northern Ontario is in the grips of a troubling new wave of coronavirus infections — and most of its victims are children.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said today there are now 232 active COVID-19 cases in Kashechewan, an isolated community of roughly 2,000 people in the northern reaches of Ontario.

Miller said children and adolescents make up a “majority” of those infections because vaccines are currently limited to those 12 years of age and older.

Ottawa has deployed 15 Canadian Rangers and 15 nurses to help community leaders deal with the spike, Miller said.

There are 16 Red Cross workers on the ground to help with food distribution as hundreds of people go into isolation to prevent the virus from spreading further.

The federal government has sent tents and domes to house those who don’t have a safe place to isolate in a community beset by overcrowding. More federal money has been earmarked to help the community procure other goods like personal protective equipment (PPE), Miller said.

Unlike past outbreaks in other Indigenous communities, Miller said, this one is happening in a community where a high vaccination rate among older community members has created a “firewall” of sorts.

Dr. Tom Wong, the chief medical officer of public health at Indigenous Services Canada, said those not yet immunized make up the vast majority of new COVID-19 infections in Kashechewan; early data suggest those without a shot are eight times more likely to contract the virus.

“Definitely, the vaccine works very well,” Wong said.

Miller said the community’s health care team is working “urgently” to vaccinate those people between the ages of 12 and 18 who haven’t received a dose yet for various reasons.

“It has spread like wildfire among the people who aren’t vaccinated. It’s a warning for other communities,” Miller said, predicting a “difficult week” for Kashechewan.

“Despite everyone’s best efforts, it is a very fragile community,” he said, citing the other challenges residents there face routinely, like flooding and forced relocation.