More than 16,000 people in about 90 First Nations communities have received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine and vaccinations are underway in about a dozen additional communities, the First Nations Health Authority said Tuesday.
However, the vaccine shortage has forced the health authority to wait for additional doses from the province in order to meet its goal of getting adults in First Nations communities their first dose by the end of March.
“Our biggest challenge has been the amount of vaccine,” the acting chief medical officer, Dr. Shannon McDonald, said Tuesday morning during an update on the vaccine rollout for Indigenous communities. “We have used every single dose that we have been given to vaccinate as many people as possible starting with our most remote communities and moving inwards.”
She said the health authority is working with the Ministry of Health to ensure that once B.C. receives more shipments of the vaccine, more doses will be delivered to Indigenous communities. Approximately 42,000 doses are needed to provide the first jab to everyone over 18 living on B.C.’s 203 First Nations reserves.
Remote Indigenous communities, along with hospital workers, long-term care home residents, staff and essential visitors are among the first to receive vaccines under Stage 1 of B.C.’s vaccination plan. Health care workers began administering the Moderna vaccine to remote First Nations in early January. In B.C., a total of 171,783 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered, including 22,914 second doses.
Stage 2 will begin this month with vaccinations going to people 80 and over, Indigenous seniors over 65, general practitioners and medical specialists.
Approximately 3,000 Indigenous people have been vaccinated at urban clinics, said Katie Hughes, the health authority’s vice president of public h ealth response. However, most Indigenous people living in or near urban centres will receive the vaccine after those on reserves.
McDonald said some people in urban areas like Vancouver have asked the First Nations Health Authority for help travelling to their First Nation community in hopes of getting vaccinated. However, due to shortages of the vaccine, the health authority has had to say no.
“In the context of vaccine shortages, there have been extreme limitations as to how and where we can provide the vaccine,” McDonald said. “What we don’t have is sufficient supply for all of those members who live away from home and would like to return.”
The number of vaccines given to the First Nations Health Authority is based on the 2019 census population of people living on reserves, McDonald said, based on a 90 per cent vaccine acceptance rate which is higher than the actual uptake.
Richard Jock, the health authority’s CEO, said people from urban centres shouldn’t be travelling to remote Indigenous communities because they could bring the virus with them. Jock said those living on First Nations reserves have been given high priority because they have less access to acute care and some have a higher risk of severe health complications if they contract the virus.
“So this is really trying to mitigate the risk to people who might be exposed to COVID-19 and the consequences of that,” he said.
There were 426 active cases of the virus among Indigenous people as of Friday, 185 of whom live on reserves. This is down from more than 1,000 active cases in early January. A total of 68 Indigenous people have died from COVID-19, 38 of whom were living on reserve.
None of the recent COVID-19 variants have been detected on First Nations reserves, McDonald said. Concerns about how highly contagious variants from the U.K. and South Africa could impact Indigenous communities have been heightened amid news that variants have been detected in two remote First Nations communities in Manitoba.
Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, which represents 14 nations along the west coast of Vancouver Island, said 11 of the 14 nations have received the vaccine. It hasn’t been delivered to the Hupacasath and Tseshaht nations near Port Alberni and the Ucluelet First Nation, since they aren’t considered as remote as the others.
“The elders who live here in Port Alberni are concerned that they haven’t gotten vaccinated yet,” Sayers said. A former chief of the Hupacasath First Nation, Sayers said she has not yet received the vaccine.
Some Indigenous communities, such as Ahousaht which is a 30-minute boat ride from Tofino, welcomed health-care workers carrying vaccines with joyous singing and traditional drumming, Sayers said. “It was a real celebration because it meant life-saving vaccines for their elders and vulnerable people,” she said.
Sayers said she tries to communicate with as many of her members as possible that the vaccine is safe and effective to counter any mistrust or hesitancy. She said in one community, many young adults under 30 declined the vaccine because they had heard the vaccine can hurt fertility, which is untrue.
The public is expected to start receiving their jabs in April, with vaccinations delivered based on age, starting with seniors aged 75 to 79 and moving down in five-year age groupings. However, with Canada heavily reliant on vaccine production outside the country, experts have questioned whether shipment delays will scuttle B.C.’s plan to vaccinate all eligible residents by the end of September.