‘So many challenges’: How COVID-19 outbreak is impacting one tiny Cree town

With more than a third of Oujé-Bougoumou’s entire population of 980 people currently in mandatory self-isolation, Chief Curtis Bosum has had a very busy start to 2021.  

Since Jan. 7, there have been 27 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in this tight-knit Cree community, located more than 730 kilometres north of Montreal. 

Many of the people self-isolating are close enough contacts of the 27 positive cases to be put in precautionary self-isolation by Cree public health.

“That’s why the contact tracing is so huge. We’re such a small community … we’re very close to one another, not only in the family, but [also as] friends,” said Bosum.

Bosum said the vast majority of residents are doing a great job of controlling the outbreak, respecting the self-isolation and following the protocols. He stressed how important it is to continue to do so.

I think this really scared the community.– Curtis Bosum, Chief Oujé-Bougoumou

“I’m very grateful that they are responding in a positive way. They understand the importance. I think this really scared the community,” said Bosum.

The outbreak in Oujé-Bougoumou is linked to gatherings and parties over the new year that has also led to 33 cases so far in the nearby Cree community of Mistissini.

It has also led to a vast and ongoing contract tracing exercise by Cree public health, which at last count, included 727 contacts and more than 597 COVID-19 tests. 

Chief Curtis Bosum said there wasn’t a new COVID-19 case in the community Wednesday and that six of the 27 cases are now considered recovered. (Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou)

All of the Cree communities, including Oujé-Bougoumou, are currently in the most restrictive phase of the Cree Nation’s deconfinement plan, in which indoor and outdoor gatherings are forbidden, and community access and businesses are restricted to essential services only. Oujé-Bougoumou, along with some other communities, have also put in place a curfew. 

“When we increase restrictions and measures, this helps the contact tracing team to do its work to track further transmission,” said Bertie Wapachee, Chairperson of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, in one of his regular addresses to the Cree communities.

For Bosum, the outbreak has also been a confirmation of the warnings Cree leadership have been giving since March, that if the virus got into the communities, it would spread like wildfire.

“It’s kind of sad that the outbreak was so devastating … so big right now,” said Bosum.

No grocery store a challenge

It’s also complicated by the fact that Oujé-Bougoumou is one of the only Cree communities without a grocery store. That means at the beginning of the outbreak, many residents were regularly traveling to nearby non-Cree towns to buy food. 

Early on in the pandemic, community leadership fast-tracked renovations to an old fire hall to give the residents access to basics like bread, butter, flour and frozen goods such as vegetables without needing to leave Oujé-Bougoumou, according to Bosum.

They are also working with a grocery store of a major chain about an hour away for food deliveries.

Building a local grocery store was already in the works before the pandemic, but is now even more of a priority according to Bosum. 

“Oujé has faced so many challenges during this pandemic,” he said.

Signs of hope

Now two weeks into the outbreak, Bosum said he’s starting to see some signs of hope. 

On Wednesday, there were no new names added to the list of positive cases in Oujé-Bougoumou, and six of the 27 positive cases who are now considered recovered, according to Bosum. 

“So 14 days of people being isolated … if we continue with the trend right now, this will slow down,” he said, adding there are no signs of community transmission in Oujé-Bougoumou.

“So, some hope,” said Bosum, adding the community knows and appreciates that other Cree communities are keeping Oujé-Bougoumou in their prayers.

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