WINNIPEG -- First Nations leadership in the province met virtually Friday to address the growing number of COVID-19 infections in their communities.

MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said it’s time to talk about the issues First Nations deal with on a daily basis because of the pandemic. He said a lack of housing and places to isolate are factors in rising case numbers. He also noted mental wellness concerns, especially among members aged 20 to 29, and not having the resources to address those concerns.

“For 10 months now, it seems we have been going through a very dark time and we’re starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel and its cause of the hard work of our First Nation experts in the medical field,” said Settee.

Eighty-nine new cases of COVID were identified among First Nations Friday, 42 on reserve and 47 off reserve. Two deaths were also announced, both people in their 60s from Winnipeg. Sixteen people are currently in hospital with 16 of those in an intensive care unit.

With provincial COVID-19 infection numbers falling in many regions, the rise in First Nation cases is a cause for concern. Overall, Manitoba test positivity rates are sitting at 9.3 per cent while First Nation’s rates sit at 20 per cent.

Dr. Marcia Anderson, medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, said about 58 per cent of the new cases are First Nations people and they represent 64 per cent of all patients in the ICU. She said it was predictable First Nations people would see disproportional impacts from the pandemic.

“Largely related to inadequate housing but also because of income insecurity, food insecurity and other differential access to really important determinants of health and those also leading to higher rates of underlying illness,” she said.

When it comes to discussions on holiday gatherings, Anderson noted we are outside of a full-incubation period from New Year’s Eve and that round of gatherings. She said what we are seeing are likely contacts of cases from that time. The number of contacts in a home is often double digits, possibly contributing to a higher case count.

“One thing I think this highlights is the ability to buffer. When you have those baseline disproportionate access to things like housing, healthcare, income, food, you have less ability to buffer when the virus goes into your social network, family network, or community."

Indigenous Affairs Minister Marc Miller, who also participated in the meeting, praised the efforts of First Nations communities in their fight against COVID and encouraged leadership to use their voices to get others vaccinated.

“These coming months will be difficult. I know there’s a tendency to let down your guard but that vigilance has to continue. It isn’t the time to let up any public health restrictions as difficult as they are. There will be more outbreaks,” said Miller.

He said the vaccine has now been distributed to 169 communities, including the territories, that includes 250 doses delivered last week to Peguis First Nation for vaccinations at its senior's centre.