Port Renfrew, Pacheedaht say isolation first line of pandemic defence

Port Renfrew and the Pacheedaht First Nation have not reported a COVID-19 case in their region — and they want to keep it that way.

The remote community of about 400 on the southern tip of the Island is asking visitors to stay away and its own citizens to avoid non-essential travel to larger service centres such as Sooke, Duncan and Victoria.

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Port Renfrew has limited cellphone service and only one general store and a gas station, which are operated by the Pacheedaht Nation. There is a small volunteer fire department and an ambulance station operating 24/7, with the closest hospitals at Victoria and Duncan about two hours away.

The area is home to a burgeoning tourism industry with hundreds of new cabins and recreational properties as well as popular provincial parks. Its chamber of commerce has about 70 members.

But it remains remote and under-serviced, with locals relying on larger communities for school, medical services, retail and groceries and other essential needs.

“It’s a two-way street and we are asking everyone to help us keep our community safe,” said Kyle Van Delft, who manages the Pacheedaht’s emergency preparedness program. “That means don’t come out for recreation, and the people here shouldn’t go to Victoria for a movie.”

Van Delft and the Pacheedaht are part of the Port Renfrew Recovery Task Force, a group that also includes first responders, businesses and community stakeholders. They issued a notice Friday following the ­provincial health officer’s recommendation that British Columbians stay in their zones and avoid non-essential travel at least until Dec. 7 in an effort to curb rising COVID-19 cases.

“Just as you are doing in your community, we are doing everything within our power to keep our community safe and COVID free,” said Karl Ablack, chair of the Port Renfrew Recovery Task Force.

“We are asking those wishing to visit Port Renfrew and the traditional territory of the Pacheedaht to do so at a later date. We will be doing the same by only travelling out of our community for essential reasons such as work and school, ­medical appointments, groceries and other reasons considered to be essential.”

Van Delft said the Pacheedaht First Nation won’t refuse ­service at its general store and gas ­station, but it does require ­everyone to follow safety ­protocols including wearing masks.

He said the community has stockpiled essential PPE items such as hand sanitizer and medical masks. It is also relying on citizens to “check on your neighbours” on a regular basis to monitor any symptoms of the virus.

“There are no cases we are aware of at the moment,” said Van Delft. “But we don’t know what’s going on in everyone’s individual household.”

Van Delft said “everyone is worried.”

“The Pacheedaht is a small tight-knit community with a number of elders who wouldn’t fare well if they contracted COVID. It’s a healthy fear, but we don’t know how to react until we face it.”

He said the nation feels it is prepared for a potential case and is working with First Nations and Island Health authorities on plans for a potential outbreak, including self-isolation within the community if needed.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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