Remote Indigenous communities across Canada are slowly starting to get vaccinated as provinces rush to improve their largely criticized vaccine rollout plans.
Tahltan Nation in northern British Columbia said it received 600 doses of the Moderna vaccine on December 29, and the first vaccines have already been administered.
“Vaccinations of Tahltan members living in Tahltan Territory began and are continuing,” the nation said on Facebook last week, adding that the vaccines are only for Tahltans that live in the community.
British Columbia has vowed to inoculate the approximately 25,000 people living in northern and remote First Nations across the province by the end of March, with most Indigenous elders likely receiving vaccinations in February. The plan is contingent on B.C. getting adequate shipments of the vaccine, Bonnie Henry, the province’s top doctor, said on Tuesday.
Remote communities depend on the Moderna vaccine, approved by Health Canada on December 23, which travels more readily. The Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, which was approved about a week before, needs to be stored at ultra-low temperatures of -70 C, and is difficult to transport.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised that remote Indigenous communities, along with healthcare workers and the elderly, are among those who will get vaccinated first to mitigate disproportionate risks associated with COVID-19, and provinces are expected to comply.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has faced criticism for saying non-Indigenous Manitobans would be least likely to get the vaccine in Canada.“There would be the least amount available in Manitoba after the federal government holds back the portion for Indigenous people,” Pallister said last month.
Pallister’s spokesperson, Olivia Billson, said Pallister has repeatedly called on the federal government to protect Indigenous communities in Manitoba, a province where Indigenous peoples make up 18 percent of the population, by allocating extra doses of the vaccine for them.
Indigenous communities have been hit hard by a second wave of COVID-19. In Manitoba, nearly one-third of the population of Shamattawa First Nation, located about 745 northeast of Winnipeg, tested positive for the virus in mid-December, before the Canadian military arrived to support the community. Shamattawa’s positivity rate soared to above 70 percent during its peak.
This week, 7,300 doses of the Moderna vaccine were earmarked for Manitoba, with 5,300 of those promised to First Nations, according to a December 31 press release. The same release says Manitoba has managed to secure 9,600 extra vaccine doses from the federal government over the next three months because of its high Indigenous population.
Other provinces are also ironing out their plans to inoculate First Nations en masse.
According to Brent Ross, a spokesperson for Ontario’s ministry of the solicitor general, said the first vaccine doses allocated for Indigenous peoples will be administered this week in Sioux Lookout and the long-term care facility in James Bay.
About 180 healthcare workers who are being deployed to administer the shots in remote, fly-in communities have already received the vaccine, with more to come, Ontario has said.
Nunavut, a majority Inuit northern territory, has rolled out an extensive plan that will result in about 75 percent of its adult population vaccinated by the end of March—a rate far faster than people are seeing in the rest of Canada. Most adults across the rest of the country likely won’t be vaccinated until September, according to current government estimates.
The territory has received 6,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine and started administering it on Wednesday at the Iqaluit elders’ centre. Healthcare workers and long-term care homes will be prioritized.
To date, Indigenous Services Canada has reported 9,537 positive COVID-19 cases and 87 deaths in First Nation communities across Canada.
Indigenous communities, especially those that lack running water, are more at risk of getting COVID-19.
The U.S., which has experienced the worst COVID-19 surges in the world, is also prioritizing vaccinations of some Indigenous populations. Some communities, including Cherokee Nation, have prioritized elders who speak their centuries-old languages as a way to safeguard culture. According to NPR, 20 Cherokee speakers have died from the virus. Meda Nix, 72, told the public broadcaster that by vaccinating language speakers, it’s preserving “everything. Our culture. Our beliefs. Our ways."
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