The First Nations Health Authority has released new data that supports what First Nations leaders have said since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — that some Indigenous people are harder hit when it comes to contracting the virus.
In B.C.’s Northern Health region, nearly 36 per cent of people with confirmed cases are First Nations, even though the Indigenous people there make up less than 17 per cent of that region’s population.
That high number means First Nations people have confirmed COVID-19 cases at twice the rate of the rest of the population in B.C.’s north — and that rate is 2.5 times higher in the Island Health region.
Judith Sayers, the president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council which supports 14 communities on or near Vancouver Island, has lobbied the provincial government to release data about the proximity of COVID-19 cases to Indigenous communities since March. The new data released does not specify communities with outbreaks or exposures, only cases in health authorities.
“It’s alarming and it’s scary,” Sayers said, pointing to cases rising in some communities.
She says the high numbers are a result of poverty, overcrowding, and lack of resources in some communities, and speaks to the need for more specific data.
‘Worst health inequity’
Kim van der Woerd, a First Nations data analyst who reviewed the new data, said while she didn’t expect the figures to be as high in some regions, the numbers are “not surprising.”
“We experience the worst health inequity in terms of prevalence of issues and access to health care,” van der Woerd said.
As of Dec. 9, the total number of COVID-19 cases among First Nations in B.C. was 1,464, with 297 in the Fraser Health region, 72 in Interior Health, 140 in Island Health, 508 in Vancouver Coastal Health and 445 in the Northern health region.
There have been 17 COVID-19-related deaths among First Nations since the beginning of the pandemic.
As of Dec. 8, 34 or 2.4 per cent of active First Nations cases were hospitalized due to COVID-19.
The data is also broken down into COVID-19 cases among urban and rural First Nations people in British Columbia as a whole.
It shows that 959 confirmed COVID-19 cases are off reserve and 459 are in or near First Nation communities. In B.C., about 65 per cent of First Nations people live off reserve and in urban centres, so the numbers reflect that.
The figures may actually be higher because some First Nations people do not identify themselves to the health care system out of fear of racism, for example.
Vaccine rollout in First Nations communities
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends key populations for early vaccination, including adults in Indigenous communities — whether urban or rural — where infection can have disproportionate consequences.
The B.C. government, however, does not specify urban Indigenous populations for vaccine priority. Its priorities include Indigenous people living in remote and rural communities and high-risk people living in group settings like shelters, which could include some urban Indigenous people.
“If one looks at the socioeconomic conditions of Indigenous people [living in remote and rural areas], many of our people are impoverished, live in poverty and there’s a lack of economic development opportunities,” said Warner Adam, the chief executive officer of Carrier Family Services, an organization responsible for 11 First Nations and 14 communities in B.C.’s central and northern Interior.
He said housing is a huge concern in some communities with multi-generational families living under one roof.
“It definitely increases the vulnerability of the virus catching wave in many of our communities,” he said.
Getting the vaccine into those vulnerable communities, Adam says, is key.
Because the already-approved Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has to be stored at extremely cold temperatures, Indigenous leaders see the Moderna vaccine as a more feasible option for remote and rural Indigenous communities located far from specialized storage facilities.
The Moderna vaccine, which requires only standard refrigeration, is expected to be approved for use in Canada soon.
Cities should be priority, says medical officer
About 78 per cent of all Indigenous people in B.C. — including all First Nations members, Metis and Inuit — don’t live on reserves.
Leaders say urban Indigenous people must be included in the provinces’s early vaccine sequencing.
“We know that many of our urban populations are really struggling,” said Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer at the First Nations Health Authority.
“The virus has impacted populations, for example, in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver quite heavily and people have gotten sicker and there have been several deaths there,” she added.
She said at provincial health meeting, leaders are speaking about the prioritization of urban Indigenous populations.
“So, yes, they will be prioritized, but exactly the date or with which product is still too early to tell,” she said.