COVID-19 forces cancellation of multiple events, nurses undertake virus planning for remote communities

Eric Plummer, March 13, 2020

Francine Gascoyne is the NTC community health nurse clinical leader advising Nuu-chah-nulth on communicable diseases, including the coronavirus pandemic. (Eric Plummer photo)

Port Alberni, BC — 

Amid widespread concerns over the transmission of COVID-19, the NTC is advising against large gatherings, while Ahousaht is restricting visits to its Flores Island community.

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s nursing program is following directives from the province to advise on the cancellation of any events with more than 250 people.

“For mass gatherings, they do not want it to exceed 250 people,” said Francine Gascoyne, NTC community health nurse clinical leader. “We are following those recommendations.”

“This threshold has been selected, as it is much easier to maintain important social distancing to prevent transmission of COVID-19,” stated B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonny Henry in a joint statement issued on Thursday.

Much isn’t known about the novel coronavirus that emerged from Wuhan, China in December, but health officials have advised that COVID-19 is transmitted by water droplets from an infected person. This can bring on flu-like symptoms, such as a dry cough, sneezing, sore throat, fever and difficulty breathing, but in severe cases leads to serious respiratory problems, pneumonia and kidney failure.

“With people that get the coronavirus, some may only experience mild symptoms of it,” said Gascoyne, noting that the risk is higher for the elderly and those with weaker immune systems. “But the ones that are experiencing the severe symptoms - that’s if they’re immunocompromised - then it can affect them differently.”

The most recent information released by the province on Thursday listed 53 cases of the coronavirus in B.C., including one on Vancouver Island. One man has died with the illness: a resident in a North Vancouver long-term care home.

Besides avoiding large gatherings and keeping a greater distance from people, officials are recommending frequent handwashing with soap for at least 20 seconds, as well as disinfecting doorknobs, railings and other surfaces that are regularly touched.

“The recommendation is if you’re feeling sick, please stay home,” said Gascoyne, discouraging people from touching their eyes, nose or mouth. “We’re still in the cold and flu season – touching a surface that might have a virus, such as any cold virus, and then you rub your eye with your finger, that’s how the virus enters the body.”

NTC nurses have begun speaking with Nuu-chah-nulth communities about communicable disease prevention planning, including Nitinaht Lake and Ahousaht. Gascoyne said this planning is particularly important for reserves, where there can often be as many as 10 people living under one roof, a population density that makes isolation more of a challenge if anyone is to contract the virus.

“Right now it’s a whole community effort on a societal level – it includes all of us, that we all have a role to take,” advised Gascoyne. “We are taking a look at the inventory of what is in our health centres, and looking at ordering the supplies that are needed.”

The Ahousaht First Nation, which has approximately 1,000 residents in its Flores Island community, has also adopted the province’s recommendations to mitigate the spread of the virus. A community meeting presented information about COVID-19, advising people to frequently wash hands, cough and sneeze into a tissue or sleeve at the elbow, as well as keep a three-to-six-foot distance from others. For the time being meetings with consultants are to held over the phone or by video conferencing, community gatherings are cancelled or postponed, while visitors are restricted.

A notice issued by the First Nation on Friday recommends essential travel only outside of the village and that family or friends help the elderly by doing errands for them in Tofino or elsewhere. 

“We have many elderly and young community members who are vulnerable and susceptible to illness,” states the First Nation. “Understanding that COVID-19 is a virus that is new to humans and easily spread through respiratory droplets and from surfaces exposed to the virus, Ahousaht will be restricting visitors to the village of Ahousaht.”

Over the last week escalating fears of transmission have led to the cancellation of multiple events many Nuu-chah-nulth families have been preparing for, including the Junior All-Native Tournament for basketball, and the large Gathering Our Voices event for youth.

“The ability to predict and protect our community has changed; therefore, we feel that cancelling the event is the best call to protect our families and communities,” announced event organizers on Thursday evening.

On Friday afternoon a Nuu-chah-nulth language gathering scheduled March 24-27 at Maht Mahs joined this growing list.

After careful consideration observing the developing events with COVID 19 it is a regrettable decision that NTC will cancel the 2020 NTC Language Gathering,” stated Ian Caplette, director or Education, Training and Social Development. “Please know that NTC will be looking to reschedule this event for a time when the risks to the elderly members of our community, that this virus poses the most risk to, is not worth carrying this event on at this time. Although we are saddened that we have to cancel this gathering out of concern it is believed that each of us know the value of our elders and knowledge holders and wish to keep them safe.”

Before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, hundreds gathered in Vancouver at Hoobiyee to celebrate the Nisga’a new year with cultural performances from several First Nations, including some Nuu-chah-nulth groups. Fears have spread that the coronavirus was present at this event, but inquiries to the province’s 811 hotline have informed the Ha-Shilth-Sa that any detected COVID-19 cases have not been traced to this event.

Gascoyne has not heard of anyone tied to Nuu-chah-nulth communities with symptoms.

“A lot of our Nuu-chah-nulth people are experiencing heightened fears and heightened anxiety towards what is currently happening with the coronavirus,” she said.

“It is triggering our people back to the history of communicable disease and how it has affected our people,” the nurse added, referencing the historical devastation brought by tuberculosis and the Spanish flu over a century ago. “I encourage everyone to have conversations with one another, really debrief with one another and really talk about the impact that those diseases have had on our people – but also keeping in mind that we are a strong people, we are a resilient people. We’re still here and we will continue to move forward in a good way.”