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Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said that although COVID-19 cases in Indigenous communities are rising like in the rest of the country, vaccines are helping.PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

There has been a sharp increase in Omicron cases in First Nations communities across the country, Indigenous Services Canada says.

ISC Chief Medical Officer Tom Wong said in a press conference Thursday that active cases have risen to 5,160, a 52-per-cent increase from last week.

But he said that number is likely low, since, as in non-Indigenous jurisdictions, testing has been limited.

There have been a total of 60,703 reported cases among First Nations during the pandemic, 2,514 hospital admissions and 575 deaths, according to Indigenous Services.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said that although cases in Indigenous communities are rising like in the rest of the country, vaccines are helping.

“It’s clear that vaccines are preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death,” she said.

Dr. Wong said 84 per cent of First Nations people over 12 have received two doses, 35 per cent of children five to 11 years have had their first shot and less than 20 per cent of adults have received a booster.

He said there is a long history of health inequity that makes Indigenous communities “very vulnerable.” Those living in the North and other settings need the most vaccine protection, “such as the elders and seniors living in long-term care facilities, pregnant women, very young individuals who have cancer and chemotherapy, and individuals with multiple medical problems.”

Ms. Hajdu said the department will continue to provide assistance through its Indigenous Community Support Fund and work with federal and provincial partners as the Omicron variant poses increased challenges on health care systems and exhausted essential workers.

“The biggest challenge is not money or equipment,” she said. “We have the capacity to quickly respond with necessary items and financial support wherever and whenever it’s needed.”

She said smaller, remote Indigenous communities with fragile infrastructure have to contend with the ability of people to safely isolate and maintain household and family functions if infected.

Bearskin Lake First Nation officially asks for federal help as COVID-19 outbreak grows

Bearskin Lake First Nation – a remote community in Northwestern Ontario of about 400 people and approximately 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, has been under a state of emergency since the end of December when its outbreak began, infecting about half of the population. Isolation space was limited, forcing households to isolate positive and negative cases together, leaving a limited group of community volunteers left to help.

Ms. Hajdu said that the number of people sick or isolating is going down and that no hospital admissions or deaths have been reported in the community in this wave, attributing the recovery to vaccination efforts and public-health measures.

However, the federal government’s response to the request for military support from Bearskin Lake has been questioned. In a statement Wednesday, Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin expressed his disappointment in the level of that support. The request for federal assistance was submitted by Ontario on behalf of Bearskin Lake and only a handful of local Canadian Rangers, already living in the community, were deployed.

“Our community was anxiously waiting for help, and we were comforted by the thought that Canada would step in to provide us with much needed physical and moral support,” Mr. Kamenawatamin said in the statement, adding that his focus is now on addressing the mental-health crisis created by the outbreak.

Minister of Defence Anita Anand posted on social media Thursday that a leadership team from the Canadian Armed Forces is on the way to Bearskin Lake “to confirm tasks and ensure that the needs of the community are met.”

Ms. Hajdu said her department is working to streamline processes that some First Nations leaders in Manitoba, for example, have said are too cumbersome when they need to access federal support.

She said the federal government needs “to work with partners … on addressing long-standing gaps and inequalities in Indigenous communities that create a foothold for illnesses like COVID-19″ including housing, water, infrastructure and health care capacity.

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