Island First Nations can't lockdown due to dependence on local communities for food, medical service

A rainy, rugged and remote retreat tucked away on the southern tip of Vancouver Island is home to a First Nation village of just over a hundred people.

People living in Pacheedaht First Nation need to leave the isolated community for groceries and medical appointments, bringing the risk of COVID-19 back to their tight-knit village each time.

Kyle Van Delft, emergency program manager for Pacheedaht First Nation, said the village is not on lockdown and is asking only members and guests to come to the area.

“We are a community without cell service, we are a community without 24-hour medical care, and we are a community without a functional or large grocery store,” he said. “Any time that a community member from Pacheedaht leaves, it puts them at higher risk of contracting COVID.”

With the closest hospital in Victoria, only one gas station and no grocery store, Pacheedaht cannot lock down, and it’s not alone.

The village of Tsawout also depends on the community around it for necessities.

“Our people still have to go out and shop for groceries and all the necessities,” said hereditary Chief Eric Pelkey.

“Whatever precautions we can take in our own community are only as good as the precautions we take on our own when we leave and go out and come back.”

He believes there are people in his community who have the virus but don’t know it.

“Yes, definitely we feel there could be COVID in our community,” said Pelkey. “We’ve had several deaths that we don’t know what the causes are.”

Residents can be tested at the Saanich Peninsula Hospital, as there is currently no testing site on the First Nation, something Pelkey has heard people want.

“I’ve talked to the people in various communities and they would like to have the First Nation be able to test themselves and for tests to be available in the communities,” he said. “They say they won’t know what is there until that happens.”

Lois Williams, health manager of Tsawout First Nation, said the community is working on getting a testing site developed.

In Pacheedaht, Van Delft said it is faster for community members to leave and get a test, but that exposes them to more risk when leaving their remote area.

“We can provide that in the community, however there is a delay,” he said.

Dr. Shannon MacDonald, acting chief medical officer for B.C.’s First Nations Health Authority, said during the first phase of the virus it was clear how the transmission was ending up in the communities.

“One person brought the case home, so they may have picked it up at the gym, at their workplace, at the bar and then brought it home and it spread within a household or community,” said MacDonald.

Now, she said it’s unclear where the cases are coming from.

“It is much harder now because COVID is out there. It is in the community. It is everywhere,” she said. “The risk is the people we don’t know about.”

She believes there is a proportion of the population in these villages who may be positive with the virus and be asymptomatic.

“(They are) continuing with their life but they’re still infectious, so during that period of no or very few symptoms, they have the potential to spread COVID in the community,” said MacDonald.

For now, both Tsawout and Pacheedaht do not have any positive cases of COVID-19 and are continually asking people to stay away unless it’s essential. Both nations are stockpiling supplies, personal protective equipment, masks and hand sanitizer. Accommodations have also been set up for people to isolate if there is an outbreak. 

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