Indigenous communities to sit tight and wait for vaccine roll out

‘We are on the priority list,’ says AFN Regional Chief Roseanne Archibald.

Initial doses of the Health Canada approved Pfizer vaccine are expected to arrive in Canada next week, and from there will be administered at 14 delivery sites across the country.

Canada will receive up to 249,000 doses of the vaccine by the end of the month. This will vaccinate up to 124,500 people as a person has to take two doses for it to be effective.

It’s up to provinces and territories to determine how the doses will be distributed.

So, what does this mean for Indigenous communities – some who have been hit hard during the second wave of the pandemic?

Well, for now Indigenous communities will have to sit tight.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization, an independent committee tasked with making recommendations for the use of vaccines currently or newly approved, outlined priority groups in a report released last week.

At the top of the list are residents in long term care homes and health-care workers.

Throughout the pandemic long term care homes in Ontario, Quebec and most recently Manitoba, have been on the receiving end of serious and lethal outbreaks.

The Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald is one of the members of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force.

The province said vulnerable seniors, their caregivers and health-care workers will be among the first to receive a vaccine.

Adults in Indigenous communities will also be considered a priority group but Archibald said they will likely not be part of the initial roll out.

“We understand that there are limitations in phase one because the number of vaccines is low but as we move forward we are on the priority list and with great patience and proper logistical planning we will be able to get those vaccines out to First Nations wherever they are,” Archibald told APTN News.

Adults in Indigenous communities where infection can have disproportionate consequences are part of the NACI’s priority groups as well as adults over the age of 80.

However, with the limited amount of vaccines during the first roll out, distribution is determined by a per capita basis, experts believe it will be some time before these communities will see them.

“It would be really great if we could start to get some vaccinations happening in our Indigenous communities…even in the next couple of months would be really great,” said Dr. Veronica McKinney, an assistant professor of Northern Medical Services at the University of Saskatchewan.

Distributing vaccine comes with a series of challenges

Logistics around delivering the Pfizer vaccine comes with challenges and is one of the reasons remote and Indigenous communities won’t see the vaccine just yet.

The vaccine must be stored at temperatures below -70 C. The vaccine can last only a few hours at room temperature and needs to be stored in an ultra-cold storage freezer.

A second vaccine from Moderna, which doesn’t require the same storing options, is expected to be approved and will likely go out to communities and territories.

Health and government officials as well as Indigenous advocacy groups are calling the roll out complex and unique.

“This is probably going to be on a global scale the most complicated distribution in any of our kind of shared history,” said Melanie MacKinnon who is part of Manitoba’s First Nations pandemic response team.

“There’s still a lot more questions than answers.”

Territories won’t receive Pfizer vaccine

The territories have been designated a priority group but they have decided to wait for the Moderna vaccine, according to Health Canada.

The Government of Nunavut said distribution will be complicated enough without having to account for storage requirements.

“In our territory we have 25 communities and to deliver the vaccine in our communities it is going to take a lot of work and a lot of effort,” said health minister Lorne Kusugak.

The territory was the last place in the country to have COVID-19 cases.

Kusugak said planning for distribution has begun despite having no date in sight to receive a vaccine.

Yukon is waiting to release it’s roll out plan, but Premier Sandy Silver told reporters far north communities will get priority status along with elderly people and health-care providers.

“Once we find out the dates and the quantities those two variables really do weigh on prioritization as well,” said Silver.

How will this effect the urban Indigenous population

As the provinces release their own roll out plans with many prioritizing frontline workers and seniors, there are still questions on how it will effect First Nations living in urban centres.

Archibald admits this is another challenge.

“How do we make sure that they get the information of where to go and how to make sure that they’re vaccinated as one of the priority groups?” said Archibald.

In places like Manitoba First Nations people living off reserve make up approximately 65 per cent of the overall First Nations COVID cases in the province since the pandemic started.

Premier Brian Pallister said there needs to be more direction from Ottawa.

“Winnipeg has a significant population of Indigenous folks who need to know when they’re going to get access to this vaccine, and we need to coordinate that to protect all of us,” Pallister said during a briefing on Wednesday.

Last week, Pallister made headlines after suggesting people living off-reserve may travel north if their communities are part of the initial roll out of a vaccine for the virus.

First Nations leaders accused the premier of fear-mongering over the dispersal of a vaccine.

Manitoba has one of the highest Indigenous populations outside of the territories.

Pallister announced on Tuesday the federal government earmarked 15 per cent more of the Moderna vaccine for Manitoba than originally allocated to account for the high Indigenous population.

The Southern Chiefs’ Organization said it is critical for First Nation health professionals to be included in vaccine distribution in a release Wednesday.

The group also released their own recommendations for prioritization, which are; First Nation Personal Care Home residents and First Nation seniors home residents and workers in those homes, First Nation seniors, First Nation citizens who are medically compromised, First Nation families living in overcrowded conditions and then all other First Nation citizens.

The Manitoba Metis Federation has also called on Canada to set aside vaccines for its community members.

The federal government confirmed it will work with First Nations, Inuit and Metis groups to create a roll out plan that will include urban Indigenous populations and the groups that serve them.

With files from Kent Driscoll in Iqaluit, and The Canadian Press

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