'Some may die:' Premier warns Saskatchewan Hutterites over COVID-19

REGINA — Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has sent a stark message to the province's Hutterite colonies as their leaders and health officials work to deal with a rising number of COVID-19 cases mainly found in their communities.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Health reported 50 new infections, with 44 of them in one northern Hutterite community. It was the second-highest number of new cases reported in Saskatchewan on any day since the pandemic began. The province reported 60 new cases on July 22.

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Moe said 244 of Saskatchewan's 322 active cases are in Hutterite communities. That represents three-quarters of the province's current infections.

The premier noted that most of the province's 80 or so colonies are being co-operative in trying to contain the outbreak and added no one should be stigmatized because of the virus.

However, he said, a few of the Anabaptist communities are resistant to testing and unwilling to change parts of their communal lifestyle, such as eating and worshipping in large groups.

"This needs to change," said Moe.

Speaking from prepared remarks directly to those living in colonies, he said the province has been spared from some of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic because people changed their behaviour.

"Every single one of us in this province has been asked to and the vast majority have changed how we are living each and every day," said Moe.

"You all need to as well. If you don't, many will get sick in your community. Some will get very sick. Some will die."

There are about 50,000 Hutterites in more than 520 colonies in Canada and the United States. Their way of life can make colonies vulnerable to the novel coronavirus since members eat, worship and do many other activities together.

Advocates for Hutterite communities have complained that tough talk from politicians focused on colony outbreaks is leading to cultural and religious profiling. Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has said that such discrimination does not help build trust.

Hutterian Safety Council Chair David Tschetter said they have been working with colonies for months and sending the same message as Moe when it comes to the pandemic.

He expressed disappointment the Saskatchewan government continues identifying infections as coming from colonies.

During Wednesday's briefing, the premier said they have been working with the council for awhile and "it’s clear in the (infection) numbers that we need to do more than that."

Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding said he has been reaching out to leaders and ensuring compliance with public health orders is top of mind, which he believes is best achieved through education.

"I know even the conversation I had this morning with a couple of Hutterite leaders was talking about asymptomatic patients," he said.

The government has the authority to intervene to prevent the spread of the virus. It can mandate self-isolation and restrict travel with roadblocks in communities, as was seen in the far north earlier this year.

"There are powers that the government does have and there may be instances in the near future where possibly those powers may have to be utilized," said Moe, adding there's more communities willing to be co-operative than not.

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Health says of the province's 1,268 total cases, 929 people have recovered and 15 people remain in hospital. Seventeen patients have died.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2020

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