Feds alarmed over skyrocketing COVID infections in First Nations communities


Indigenous Services Canada says it continues to be troubled over the high number of COVID-19 cases in First Nations communities.

Their latest numbers show there are over 5,500 active cases of COVID-19 which brings the total to over 13,000 confirmed cases on reserve to date with 120 deaths.

“These numbers continue to be alarming and now is not the time to ease up on public health restrictions,” Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said at a press conference Wednesday.

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) is particularly showing concern for rising cases in the prairie provinces.

When asked to speculate ISC says it is most likely due to the opening up of economies with public places like restaurants being allowed to open and also due to gatherings over the Christmas holidays.

“People let their guard down, for sure. It’s human nature. It’s very difficult to ask Indigenous communities to do something that we ourselves wouldn’t do,” Miller explained suggesting that travel from cities played a part in bringing the virus to remote communities.

Valerie Gideon, associate assistant deputy minister of ISC, says communities in provinces with stricter measures like Ontario and Quebec are doing better than other harder hit communities and non-essential travel exposed certain communities to greater risk.

Lighter restrictions make it difficult for communities to limit travel to high risk areas which is essential for keeping the virus out.

“We’ve seen that the highest funding requests we’ve received in terms of the Indigenous Community Support fund needs based envelope has been for perimeter security,” Gideon revealed.

“We have still close to 350 communities that closed their borders to non-essential travel and are really maintaining their resolve in order to protect their community members.”

In terms of vaccinations ISC says the delay of the Pfizer vaccine deliveries into Canada do not effect vaccination efforts in northern and remote communities.

Immunization clinics have started in the three territories and ISC says they are on schedule to have 75 per cent of the adult population there fully vaccinated with both Moderna shots by the end of March.

So far the vaccine has reached 169 Indigenous communities nationwide.

Dr. Tom Wong, chief medical officer for ISC, says the plan was always for the use of the Moderna vaccine rather than the fragile Pfizer vaccine in remote Indigenous communities because it is easier to transport.

He says the Moderna vaccine only needs to be stored in minus 20 degree temperatures as opposed to the Pfizer vaccine that must be stored in minus 80 degree temperatures.

“And (the Moderna vaccine) can be stored in the refrigerator for a month versus only being able to store the Pfizer vaccine in the refrigerator for five days,” Wong explained.

With vaccinations in long term care homes well underway ISC says it is especially important to vaccinate elders in communities.

Miller said this is particularly vital because elders in Indigenous communities don’t have the same access to care or medical facilities as those outside of Indigenous communities.

“Often the elders that would be in a long term care facility are actually living in congregate living whether it be with five, 10, 15 or 20 people, so very vulnerable,” Miller said.

Miller also showed concern for vaccinating First Nations populations living off reserve and said the feds are doing “quite work” with provincial and municipal governments through ongoing discussions.

“You’re dealing with a phase of the roll-out that hasn’t quite come yet. This is sort of the phase 1B or 2 of the rollout of the vaccine when the numbers get larger and reflecting the need to distribute vaccines to those that are the most vulnerable.”

Concern was especially heightened with the recent death of Raphael Andre in Montreal. Andre was a First Nations man who was found dead in a porta-potty. It is suspected Andre died hiding from police and a fine for being out after the city’s 8 p.m. curfew.

Due to outbreaks in the city’s homeless population, Montreal shelters have been forced to reduce capacities leaving many with nowhere to go.

Montreal public health has since stated homeless people will be receiving the vaccine and 925 doses have been set aside for that purpose.

Wong says the spike in cases during this second wave of over 5,500 cases is well over the highest spike during the first wave, which was 99 active cases of COVID-19 and he says the upward trend is continuing.

Wong warns if the rate of infection doesn’t come down with the use of public health measures the country could be in a situation where the entire health system would be overwhelmed.

Miller says with the incredible leadership of the Frist Nations, Inuit and Metis communities across the nation “we will weather the storm of this enormous challenge.”

Reporter / Ottawa

Originally from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi on the eastern coast of James Bay, Quebec, Jamie has lived in Ottawa since 2015. Trained in journalism at Carleton University, he has worked as a freelance print journalist and as a writer/researcher for the Cree unit of CBC North out of Montreal. Jamie was hired as the reporter/correspondent for the Ottawa bureau in October 2019.