Kahnawake has become the statistical anomaly in the region during the COVID-19 pandemic

News source from CTV News

There is almost talk of a miracle when looking at the statistical anomaly of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community of Kahnawake.

While Quebec is on fire, and the greater Montreal area particularly hard hit, the Mohawk community is still operating without deaths or hospitalizations due to the novel coronavirus. A part of the success has been attributed to the expertise of family doctor and virologist: Dr. Annick Gauthier.

During what should be called today “the infamous spring break” in the winter of 2020, Gauthier was on a trip to New York, where she was going to meet former colleagues from the Rockefeller University with whom she worked to discover a treatment for hepatitis C.

Dr. Charles Rice was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine last October for this same work.

“I have a very small part of the Nobel Prize in me!” said the specialist in infectious diseases.

However, it was not the honours that fueled the discussions during this reunion between researchers, but rather the recent outbreak of a new virus called SARS-CoV-2. A new coronavirus that causes a disease that would later be called COVID-19.

” There was no case in New York at that time, but when we left New York, the first case happened. When I got home, I knew everything was going to change,” said Gauthier, who studied medicine at McGill after graduating in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of British Columbia and working for several years in the pharmaceutical industry.

Immediately, she began to write a document to explain “Virology 101” to all the doctors in the country. Instead of going through the traditional channels of scientific journals, she published her document on a Facebook group bringing together thousands of doctors. She explained basic concepts to guard against the virus and prevent it from spreading.

In that same first week, when the virus had also just been spotted in Quebec, Gauthier participated in a team meeting of doctors from the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre, in Kahnawake.

“Right away, I realized they needed help,” she said. “It’s not that I’m fantastic, it’s just that I have a good background for that moment which is horrible.”

Her information was welcomed by Kahnawake’s COVID-19 Task Force.

She is therefore putting her research on congenital diseases on hold to focus on protecting the Kanien’kehá:ka community of some 10,000 people against the coronavirus.

As public health guidelines and other information on the virus were made public, Gauthier plays the role of popularizer and filter to relay only messages she deems relevant to the community.

“I was able to say what makes sense and what doesn’t. I was digging through the literature, communicating with colleagues in other countries to bring back all the information and create protocols that worked,” said Gauthier who became a local star through her online videos and radio appearances.

Although her name suggests that she is French-speaking, Gauthier is English-speaking, but she speaks French very well as La Presse Canadienne was able to observe during a French interview lasting nearly an hour. Gauthier’s bilingualism enabled her to translate several Quebec government documents into English and relay them to the predominantly English-speaking community of Kahnawake.

The first line of defence deployed by the Kahnawake COVID-19 Task Force is mobilizing on three fronts: staff movement, symptom self-assessment and communication with the population.

The main decision Gauthier retained from her interventions at the very beginning of the pandemic, in the winter of 2020, was to put an end to the movement of healthcare personnel from one establishment to another.

“I think that’s the secret of the success of the first wave in Kahnawake,” she said. “I didn’t know it existed. I didn’t know people needed to work in two places to make a living.”

Once aware of this information, the Gauthier immediately saw the potential for catastrophic contagion represented by nurses or attendants who moved from one setting to another. Especially since outbreaks were already starting to surface elsewhere in Montérégie and Montreal.

Kateri Hospital Executive Director Lisa Westaway convinced employees of the need to put an end to working in multiple locations. Only doctors could continue to see patients outside the community, but respecting much more severe protocols than those imposed at that time by the Quebec health system.

“For example, a doctor could not work in a CHSLD, go to his clinic and return to a CHSLD. They had to follow a one-way road from a green zone to a red zone and never backwards,” said Westaway.

As another strict measure imposed from the first weeks of the pandemic, Gauthier created a symptom self-assessment questionnaire made mandatory for anyone entering the Kateri Memorial Hospital. The same questionnaire was deployed in all the businesses in the community, then possibly in schools at the start of the September school year.

Always with the aim of acting quickly, Kahnawake worked hard to obtain its own testing centre as early as April. Tests have since been carried out daily although sometimes there were only a handful of samples to analyze.

On the third front, members of the task force posted live videos on social media every day.

Gauthier has also joined in by publishing educational videos on all aspects of the virus and on prevention methods based on the most recent scientific publications available.

In order to minimize the risks of the virus spreading in the community of Kahnawake, Gauthier has written good practice protocols for businesses, restaurants, schools, school buses, gyms, etc.

“These protocols must be followed and to ensure this, we have trained public health inspectors among the staff of the Mohawk Council,” she said.

— this report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2021. 

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