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A closed sign at the Blackfoot Crossing historical site at the Siksika First Nation reserve located southeast of Calgary, which is seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases this past week, on July 7, 2020.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

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Dozens of homes on an Alberta First Nation are under isolation as the community copes with an outbreak of COVID-19, but the local health authority says robust testing, contact tracing and restrictions including a curfew appear to be bringing the outbreak under control.

Siksika Nation, about 100 kilometres east of Calgary, had 12 confirmed cases on the reserve as of Tuesday and in the past week reported potential cases considered “under investigation” jumping from around 60 to more than 270. Tyler White, chief executive officer of Siksika Health Services, said that list included not just people with symptoms, but also potential contacts who may have been exposed and were told to isolate as they awaited testing.

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Mr. White said the community has conducted more than 2,000 tests of people living both on and off the reserve, with just 22 positive cases. Siksika Nation has about 7,500 members, including more than 4,000 people living in the community.

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Siksika Health has set up a drive-thru testing site and is also conducting home and workplace visits. People who are isolating have access to supports that include food and mental-health services, said Mr. White, who described the situation as contained.

“This, to me, really reflects the comprehensiveness of the response of Siksika Nation,” Mr. White said. ”We’ve been quite successful in navigating those systems on and off reserve, getting support for our members who have other complex needs.”

First Nations communities have been identified as particularly at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic and the federal government announced $285-million to support public-health efforts in Indigenous communities earlier this year.

There have been 324 confirmed cases on First Nations reserves across the country as of Monday, including 104 in Alberta, and six deaths, according to Indigenous Services Canada, which oversees health care on reserves. The federal government has pointed to those relatively low numbers as a sign that First Nations communities have effectively flattened infections.

Assembly of First Nations declares state of emergency over coronavirus fears

Siksika Nation in Alberta imposes curfew to deal with COVID-19 spike

Siksika Nation declared a local state of emergency in March and recorded its first positive case in June. Mr. White said the cases of COVID-19 are believed to have originated in Calgary, which has been a provincial hotspot for infections.

Gatherings are limited to 10 people and councillors approved a temporary curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. last Friday.

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Mr. White said First Nations communities are at particular risk from an outbreak because of crowded living conditions and health complications such as diabetes and heart conditions.

“It has exposed some long-standing issues here and it has made the situation very complex,” he said.

The outbreak also came as the community was preparing for its annual Sun Dance, an important spiritual event held last week that brings people in the community together in prayer. Siksika Health worked with organizers to come up with a plan to ensure the event could be held safely. Participants were tested before the event, screened upon arrival with questionnaires, and tested again several days later, Mr. White said.

Arthur Little Light, who lives on the reserve, said he recalls watching news coverage of the first reports of the disease in China and wondering when – not if – it would arrive in his community.

“I knew it was going to get here eventually,” he said. “It took a while before it got to Siksika Nation, but once it did get here, it’s scary.”

Mr. Little Light is a local contractor but hasn’t been able to work since March. He’s hoping to be tested this week to be cleared to return to work.

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Carissa Lowhorn, who lives in Calgary but frequently visits her family in Siksika and plans to work there as a teacher this fall, said she’s worried for her grandmother, who is in her 70s and had to isolate for two weeks after coming into contact with someone who had COVID-19. Her grandmother was tested three times and each came back negative.

She said people in the community are used to big gatherings and it has been difficult not to see her family.

“You feel scared because you don’t know what they’re doing,” Ms. Lowhorn said. “I don’t really see them anymore and I haven’t seen my grandma for over a month.”

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