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Saskatchewan dealing with fast-spreading COVID-19 outbreak in far north

REGINA — Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer says a rapidly spreading outbreak of COVID-19 in a northern community is concerning. Dr.

REGINA — Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer says a rapidly spreading outbreak of COVID-19 in a northern community is concerning.

Dr. Saqib Shahab says 19 of 26 new cases announced Friday come from in and around La Loche, a Dene village about 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, where the virus is spreading through community transmission after initially arriving from someone who had travelled from northern Alberta.

"While the number of cases is very alarming, we also have to recognize that this is a product of very aggressive contact tracing and very aggressive testing," he told a news conference.

"Teams are going door-to-door, house-to-house, screening, testing. And so you'll find more cases than you would have found otherwise."

Health officials noted there could be language barriers and some locals have partnered with clinical staff to help communicate.

Between 50 to 100 health authority staff are set to be in the community for added support after a call-out was issued earlier in the week.

Sending staff to homes is being done to try and control the spread of the virus, since testing and contact tracing aren't enough, said Shahab.

"People who are symptomatic need to isolate at home. And if that's not possible due to crowding or other challenges, they can be offered alternate accommodation."

Late Friday, the Saskatchewan Health Authority declared another COVID-19 outbreak in Beauval, a village about 215 kilometres south of La Loche.

Officials made the declaration citing an increasing number of cases.

A contact tracing investigation was underway but the number of people infected with the virus was not released.

"We are asking that anyone who may have travelled through the community of Beauval between April 12 and April 27 should self-monitor for any symptoms of COVID-19," the authority said in an email. 

Despite outbreaks in the north and at two hospitals, Shahab said the rest of the province remains quiet on the COVID-19 front.

An outbreak was declared at the Victoria Hospital in Prince Albert after a patient admitted on April 21 tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. The patient initially tested negative before they went to the hospital.

The CEO of the Saskatchewan Health Authority also said officials should have informed people sooner about an outbreak at the hospital in Lloydminster on the Saskatchewan-Alberta boundary, where both staff and patients have been infected.

That outbreak was announced on Wednesday, with at least 13 of the cases tied to the hospital, although officials knew earlier.

"We've unknowingly and ... not purposefully have raised the anxiety in that community and we will do our very, very best in the future for this not to happen again," said Scott Livingstone, head of the health authority.

Saskatchewan has so far recorded 415 cases of COVID-19, with 297 people recovered. Six people have died.

The province is planning to lift some public health restrictions starting Monday that would see some services and business reopen after they were closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 1, 2020.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press