‘A light at the end of the tunnel’: COVID-19 vaccine begins arriving in Manitoba First Nations communities

The arrival of the first shipment of the Moderna vaccine in Pimicikamak Cree Nation Thursday evening is “a light at the end of the tunnel,” Chief David Monias said.

About 10 elders in the northern community became some of the first people in Manitoba First Nations to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I’m quite ecstatic about it,” Monias said.  “For the vaccine to be in my community, it’s ecstatic, and just happy for my elders.”

After the provincial government announced all 63 First Nations in Manitoba would receive a portion of the first 5,300 doses reserved for Indigenous people in the province, health workers in those communities began calling their eligible members to offer them their first doses.

Priority is being given to people over 60 in remote communities, and over 70 in non-remote areas, as well as people living in personal care homes and front-line health workers.

Around 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, a plane carrying 200 doses of the vaccine arrived in Pimicikamak, about 519 kilometres north of Winnipeg. 

A police escort accompanied the 20 vials, each containing 10 doses, to the community’s nursing station, where the vaccine will be administered.

Pimicikamak Chief David Monias with the vaccine shipment, which consisted of 20 vials containing 10 doses each. (Courtesy David Monias)

The community had been preparing for this day for a long time, Monias said. They have drawn up a list of 168 residents over the age of 70 living in their own houses, as well as 11 people living in the long-term care facility in the community, and about 20 care home staff who will be eligible for the first doses. 

A nurse and a health care aide will administer the vaccine. The community also has people to drive the elders to and from the nursing station, and to monitor them for any adverse reactions after they get the vaccine. 

First Nations hit hard

First Nations people have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. They make up about half of the active cases in the province, and nearly half of the COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care units, according to the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team.

Pimicikamak has been under lockdown since October. The community was divided into five districts, with check stops set up. People were forbidden to travel without permission, Monias said.

There are currently 30 active cases of COVID-19 in the community, Monias said.

Also known as Cross Lake Cree Nation, Pimicikamak is located about 530 km north of Winnipeg. (Submitted by Kyle Scribe)

The decision to divide the first shipment of vaccine among all 63 First Nations in Manitoba came late Wednesday night, after the province committed to providing a second shipment of 5,300 doses by Feb. 23, said Jerry Daniels, Grand Chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization, one of four First Nations organizations advising the province on its vaccine rollout to Indigenous communities.

“We didn’t want to give people the first dose without being assured that there’s a second dose, because we want to ensure the effectiveness of the vaccine,” Daniels said.

The decision to give the vaccine to every First Nation in Manitoba was made by health professionals advising the First Nations organizations, said Arlen Dumas, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. 

Issues like inadequate housing and overcrowding are common across First Nations communities, making it difficult to come up with a priority list, he said.

“It’s hard to, sort of, juggle which one should be prioritized when everybody is susceptible and vulnerable. This virus is not going to discriminate and it’s impacting all of us,” he said.

Vaccinations could take a year

It could take up to a year before every First Nations person in Manitoba receives the vaccine, Dumas said.

In all of Manitoba, there are close to 7,300 people in First Nations communities over the age of 60, Daniels said. First priority in non-remote communities will go to those over the age of 70, but there are four communities in the south that are considered remote, where everyone over the age of 60 will be eligible. 

The Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Rapid Response Team arrived in Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake) to test community members for COVID-19 in late October. (jebits/Facebook)

Peguis First Nation is one of the communities that will start vaccinating its citizens at the age of 60. Chief Glenn Hudson said he expects the first vaccine doses to arrive in the next few days, with the first vaccinations starting by Monday. 

There are more than  365 people in the community over the age of 60, the most out of any Manitoba First Nation, Hudson said. 

In Pimicikamak, people are beginning to look forward to a time when they can move freely again, without the fear of the virus, Monias said.

“It will give them hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s exciting.”

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