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Indigenous Services Canada Chief Medical Officer of Public Health Dr. Tom Wong responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, Jan. 20, 2021.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Indigenous communities are seeing an “alarming” rate of COVID-19 cases, the Chief Medical Officer of Public Health for Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said Wednesday.

“I am concerned about the alarming rate at which COVID-19 is spreading in Indigenous and other communities,” Dr. Tom Wong told a news briefing in Ottawa.

ISC said Wednesday that the number of reported active cases reached an all-time high this week in First Nations communities, with 5,571 active cases reported as of Tuesday.

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Weekly numbers of newly reported cases fluctuated between 1,753 to 2,046 since the beginning of the year, the department added.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Indigenous communities is a major concern to the federal government and public health officials. They have noted the potential for a greater risk of spread because of continuing challenges and inequities, including housing, the prevalence of underlying medical conditions and the extent of medical services available in Indigenous communities.

Ottawa has also been concerned since the beginning of the pandemic that the second wave would be more extensive in Indigenous communities than the first.

The number of cases now is much higher than the peak of the first wave, Dr. Wong said. By comparison, he said, during the peak of the first wave, First Nations communities had 99 active cases.

“Now we are looking at over 5,500 active cases,” he said. “When you look at the trend over the past couple of weeks, the increasing trend continues.”

Dr. Wong noted that in Manitoba for example, First Nations communities amount for 11 per cent of the provincial population, but it has been reported that they account for a third or a half of COVID-19 hospitalizations and over 50 per cent of admissions to intensive care units.

He said there are a number of reasons for the rise in cases, including the impact of activity outside those communities, and the holiday period, when there may have been gatherings or travel.

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Dr. Wong also warned about the capacity of the health care system and its ability to respond if the COVID-19 rate doesn’t come down with current public health measures,

“We would be in a situation where ... the entire health system would be overwhelmed,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen.”

On Wednesday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller called for sustained vigilance, noting that public health measures such as physical distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing, which worked to keep cases down during the first wave, should also help during the second. He also said there are efforts underway to ensure vaccines reach all communities.

“What we are saying to Canadians, to Indigenous people, now is not the time to let down your guard,” he said. “This is not the time to ease public health restrictions.”

Mr. Miller also said the virus can become a “tinder box” in communities owing to housing conditions, noting action has to be taken quickly to prevent rapid spread in communities with even a few cases of COVID-19.

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