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First Nations at higher risk of COVID-19


SADDLE LAKE - First Nations people are at a heightened risk when it comes to COVID-19, says a Saddle Lake Cree Nation physician.

The bid to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus has meant a new normal at the reserve’s health centre – from booking appointments to assessing patients; the Saddle Lake Health Centre’s goal is to be effective, as many in the community already have underlying medical conditions.

“For First Nations, it could be twice as worse,” Dr. Nicole Cardinal said. “Because a lot of our community members are sicker than the general population.”

“If they all get sick, that would backlog us, and so we are trying to stay on top of things, and trying to get take care of our patients with more complex needs.”

Some homes in the community house large families, she explained.

“When we were talking about making new changes, we knew that we needed to make changes in the way people were entering the building,” Cardinal said. “With our biggest concern being keeping staff safe.”

With the clinic already short-staffed, Cardinal said, “We needed to make sure that these people are able to function in their roles and still be protected.”

Anyone entering the health centre must now go through the same door, where they will be screened before entering. The clinic is also limiting traffic that’s coming in, Cardinal said, with only seven people allowed in the waiting area.

“We only want people coming here for a valid reason, such as going to the pharmacy, appointments, for home care, or see anyone in public health,” she added. Staff will be turning away anyone who doesn’t have a complex reason to be there. Anyone concerned about symptoms is now being asked to phone in to the clinic where a physician or nurse will go through symptoms with them.

“If we decide that this person needs to be swabbed, we tell them to come in but, ask them to stay in the car,” Cardinal said. “Either I, or someone else will go out to the patient to swab them outside.”

  • COVID-19 UPDATE: Follow our COVID-19 special section for the latest local and national news on the coronavirus pandemic, as well as resources, FAQs and more.

The method, which is also being practiced at other clinics, is working, she said. And, “We don’t have enough masks and gloves, and so we are trying to do this in an efficient way without running out of our supplies.”

“We want to be effective, that’s our focus,” said Cardinal. “We want to catch it within in our community first before things get out of hand.”

Canada’s Indigenous population, estimated at about 1.4 million people, experience higher levels of poverty and lower life expectancy, which puts them at a heightened risk during the coronavirus pandemic.

Saddle Lake’s Chief Eric Shirt says all people have been asked to self-isolate if they are not feeling well, and practice social distancing. The band has limited its office hours, set up sanitation stations, has non-essential staff working from home and has also cancelled all non-essential services.

“We are taking all kinds of precautions to limit the virus from hurting the community,” Shirt told the Journal. “We are encouraging people to practice common sense to ensure the safety of themselves and their families.”

On March 18, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced it will be spending $305 million to help Indigenous communities during the pandemic.


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