COVID-19 testing to begin in Inuit coastal community after presumptive case

Gerald Asivak, Nunatsiavut’s minister of health and social development, says nurses in Makkovik are being joined by Labrador-Grenfell Health counterparts to conduct widespread COVID-19 testing. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

COVID-19 testing will get underway Thursday and continue Friday in the small Labrador coastal community of Makkovik, the Nunatsiavut government says, as part of the public health response to a presumptive positive case of the virus in the Inuit town.

“Today and tomorrow will be very busy, hard days,” Gerald Asivak, the minister of health and social development, told CBC Radio’s Labrador Morning on Thursday.

“We’re going to ensure that we meet our standards, with the province, Dr. Fitzgerald, around what needs to be done,” he said, referring to Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer of health. 

Asivak said “a great, caring team” of public health nurses in the isolated, largely Inuit community of about 400 people on Labrador’s north coast will receive support from nurses from Labrador-Grenfell Health on Thursday for the testing and contact tracing efforts.

Labrador-Grenfell Health alerted the government just after supper time on Wednesday about the case, Asivak said. Presumptive positive tests need to be checked in a St. John’s laboratory to confirm the results, but cases are treated the same as confirmed ones, with the person asked to self-isolate and close contacts advised to quarantine.

About 74 per cent of eligible adults in Makkovik have received both doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Asivak said regardless of vaccinations, all people in the community will be tested. (Submitted by Cathy Ford)

Almost 74 per cent of eligible adults in Makkovik have been vaccinated against COVID-19, receiving both doses of the Moderna vaccine. Asivak said even those vaccinated will be tested as part of the contact tracing effort.

The vaccine uptake “may be a help in curtailing spread in our community,” said Makkovik’s AngujukKak Barry Andersen.

The Moderna vaccine is not approved for use in people younger than 18.

Asivak said that test is being flown to St. John’s. The government will update residents on its status, hopefully as soon as Friday.

“We’re hopeful and optimistic that it does come back negative,” he said.

Anxiety and fear

In wintertime, Makkovik is accessible only by air or snowmobile. As the COVID-19 response has ramped up, the community has been effectively cut off from the outside world, with all regular flights in and out suspended, save for medical emergencies. People are also being asked to keep contacts within their own households and to refrain from visiting neighbouring communities by snowmobile.

The case is related to travel from the St. John’s area, the epicentre of an ongoing outbreak involving the contagious B117 variant of the virus, which led Fitzgerald last Friday night to put the entire province in lockdown, with restrictions limiting movement within the province to essential reasons only.

Everyone in Makkovik is worried, said Andersen. The news of the presumptive case came as a “shock,” he said in an open letter to the community.

Labrador as a region has not had a positive case of COVID-19 in months, although its health authority has now increased testing in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Labrador City in light of the current outbreak.

Speaking to CBC News, Andersen said people in Makkovik are used to having to travel outside the community to receive medical care, and he urged kindness under the current circumstances.

“If you have to go to St. John’s for medical reasons, it’s a pretty serious situation for a person’s health. So I’m just urging people to show compassion for the individual in question here,” Andersen said.

“I’m sure in a small community it won’t be long before word gets out who it might be and that kind of thing.”

‘The person is doing well’

Keeping the person’s privacy in mind, Asivak did not give details but said “the person is doing well,” and being supplied with everything they need, from food to mental health support.

Part of the contract tracing efforts will involve passengers on any flights the person was on, he said. Many people from Makkovik must go to St. John’s for medical treatments, and he said he knew of other people postponing or cancelling appointments as worry grips the community.

“I can appreciate people being anxious and scared,” Asivak said.

He asked for co-operation in the coming days. “We have to work together and remain calm.”

With the lockdown already in place, Andersen said sporting events and other gatherings in Makkovik have been cancelled for days and town facilities closed. He hopes that curtails any potential spread.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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