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Kahnawake feeling pandemic pinch

The fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in the highly transmissible Omicron variant, dramatically increasing positive cases in the community and around the world over the last few weeks.

As of Wednesday evening, there were 110 active cases of COVID-19 in Kahnawake and a total of 223 since the beginning of the fifth wave. According to local Public Health, the number of Kahnawa’kehró:non in isolation
is believed to be in the hundreds, although there is currently no way to verify the data.

Early this week, Lisa Westaway, the executive director of the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre (KMHC), told The Eastern Door that she had tested positive during a family trip to Mexico over the holidays.

“I was very conflicted about leaving, but when I looked at my daughter’s packed suitcase two weeks before the leaving date, my husband who has spent two years without a wife, my kids without their mother, I knew that I had to make a decision to put them first, and this, for the first time in two years,” said Westaway.

Many community members took to social media to express their anger and disappointment with the executive director’s decision and questioned her credibility and suitability to continue in her role.

Westaway said that she expected the backlash because of her position at KMHC and as part of the Task Force.

“I put my family first in coming to Mexico, but found a way to do so with conditions so that I could continue to do my work and protect the hospital and community, keeping in mind that there are no travel restrictions at the current time (when she left),” she explained.

She said that prior to making the decision to travel, she consulted the hospital’s board of directors and provided them with a detailed plan that would ensure that her duties and responsibilities continued to be fulfilled.

According to Westaway, both the board and her colleagues supported her decision.

“Lisa requested authorization to travel and provided the board with a plan,” said board member Arnold Lazare.

“We felt that given the circumstances, that it’s been 20 long months, and that she would be able to function in her position during her vacation, the decision to travel was not an issue.”

Lazare confirmed that the executive director has worked four to six hours a day while maintaining contact with the different organizations and staff despite being on vacation.

“This was a family vacation, and she followed all of the guidelines. It was not a Sunwing party jet. She followed the same precaution as if she was home. It was a common-sense defendable decision,” added Lazare.

Westaway and her daughter remain in Mexico while they recover. She said that she has been feeling well and has continued to work since her diagnosis.

The executive director also said that no one expected such a startling rise of positive cases within such a short period of time.

“When you see one case and the amount of people that get impacted from that, I really don’t think… we weren’t prepared for that,” said Westaway about the current COVID situation.

“We definitely have a lot of cases right now, and every time that we have our testing site open, our cases increase quite significantly.”

Westaway said that she expects this trend to continue for the next few weeks.

According to the executive director, one of the Task Force’s priorities is maintaining essential services in the community. And thus far, they have been able to do just that, albeit with difficulties.

“I think that the quick action in the community, the closure a couple of weeks ago – even before Quebec, really made a huge difference,” she said.

The only way to maintain essential services in Kahnawake is to have the least number of cases that lead to hospitalization, said Westaway.

“Even if Omicron is showing signs that it is less severe than other variants, the more people you have sick at any given time, the more risk there is that people will end up in the hospital with severe illness.”

The situation is even more precarious in the rest of the province as Quebec’s health care system heads toward a level-four risk, meaning that hospitals are running out of beds and eventually will have to switch to primary care mode where they will prioritize services and certain surgeries in order to be able to maintain their essential services.

Furthermore, over the last couple of weeks, some have been questioning the effectiveness of vaccines
as more and more fully vaccinated people are testing positive in this current wave.

However, Westaway explained that vaccinated people tend to have milder symptoms that don’t require hospitalization, which helps maintain essential services in health care facilities.

Local Public Health continues to push for vaccinations because, along with health measures and directives, it slows the spread of the virus.

marisela.amador88@gmail.com

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