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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives at the 2021 budget in Edmonton in February.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Indigenous leaders in the Fort McMurray region are calling on the Alberta government to impose strict public-health measures as skyrocketing COVID-19 infections threaten their remote communities and the area’s small hospital.

The 11 First Nations and Métis settlements in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, issued a statement on Tuesday that accused the provincial government of failing to take the COVID-19 situation seriously and wrongly blaming Indigenous people for worsening infection numbers.

A day earlier, the regional municipality declared a state of emergency and asked the Alberta government to prioritize the region for vaccines, similar to strategies in other provinces that have focused vaccines on hot-spot areas.

Alberta has the highest rate of active cases of COVID-19 in the country, and the Fort McMurray region has the highest rate of active infections in the province. In Fort McMurray, schools are closed for in-person instruction and work camps in the oil sands have hundreds of active COVID-19 cases.

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Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said the province has failed to contain rapidly increasing COVID-19 infection, which is putting his community at risk.

“If Fort Chip was to have an outbreak of COVID-19 right now, and if people were to need hospital beds, we would have nothing because the hospital beds here in Fort McMurray are full,” he said.

The chief said the regional hospital’s small intensive-care unit is full and he’s not confident that people in his community would be able to get care if they needed it. The First Nation does not have any active cases right now, he said.

The Indigenous leaders’ statement called on the provincial government to put in a stay-at-home order in the regional municipality; impose a curfew; restrict businesses to essential services; close restaurant patios, which remain open; establish isolation units at local hotels; and increase testing capacity.

They also said everyone over 18 should be eligible to be vaccinated.

A day earlier, Premier Jason Kenney pointed to low vaccine uptake in the Fort McMurray region and singled out vaccine hesitancy among Indigenous people.

The vaccination rate in Fort McMurray is 13.9 per cent. In the rest of the district, 17.2 per cent of people have received at least one dose. Across the province, that figure is 26.2 per cent.

Mr. Adam said Mr. Kenney was wrongly blaming Indigenous people for the current outbreak, which he said are also related to nearby oil sands work camps and workers coming in from outside the province.

“We don’t have an outbreak in our communities, so you can’t blame us for this outbreak,” he said.

He said more than half of the adults in his community have received a vaccine, though he acknowledged there are some people who have bought into misinformation and refused. He said provincial health officials should be doing more to improve vaccine acceptance.

Deena Hinshaw, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have largely been spoken for but she added there are AstraZeneca doses, available to anyone over 40 through walk-in clinics.

She said her office is looking at possible responses to the situation in Fort McMurray, including diverting vaccines to the area, but she said there are several areas of the province with rates almost as high.

“We have a limited supply, so anything that’s allocated there … would be taking it away from somewhere else,” she said.

The hospital in Fort McMurray has added two beds to its seven-bed intensive care unit and postponed non-urgent procedures in an effort to cope with the wave of infections. The ICU is full with nine patients.

In Fort McKay – a 900-person First Nation and Métis community located in the midst of a number of oil sands projects just north of Fort McMurray – there are two cases of COVID-19, said Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis Nation. He said the region’s young population makes it imperative that governments lift some of the current age restrictions on vaccinations.

“There’s cause for concern because we don’t know exactly what is causing the surge,” he said in an interview. “We’re making assessments on our own.”

Mr. Quintal noted there are two current major oil sands facility “shutdowns” (scheduled shutdowns, or turnarounds, are done for oil sands plant maintenance) going on, bringing in large numbers of workers from outside the region.

“There is an outbreak in camps,” he said, which means that some of those people end up in the local hospital.

Mr. Quintal said Tuesday there are now security restrictions in place in Fort McKay, and community members can only leave the community for essential items once per day. He added vaccine hesitancy is an issue. But still, about 30 per cent of the Fort McKay community has received at least one vaccine dose, and “any vaccines that come into the community, we’re getting them in arms as quickly as we possibly can.”

The news release from the 11 communities said COVID-19 took the life of “a respected Métis elder who was turned away at Northern Lights Regional Health Centre twice in the week before he died.”

There were no further details given, but Kendrick Cardinal, president of Fort Chipewyan Métis Local #125, confirmed that was in reference to a prominent member of his local and the Fort McMurray community, who died on Saturday. The family, he said, is asking for privacy.

“The spiritual mourning period for the family is four days,” Mr. Cardinal said. “The family will make a statement at a later date.”

Alberta Health Services spokesman Kerry Williamson said the agency is aware of the incident but can’t comment on specific cases. He said no patients have been denied care at the hospital because of capacity issues.


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