Northernmost Manitoba First Nations mostly COVID-free but still have pandemic, vaccination concerns

Manitoba’s three northernmost First Nations have not been hit hard by COVID-19 so far but the pandemic and longstanding issues continue to be of concern, their leaders said at a virtual press conference hosted by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Feb. 9.

Northlands Denesuline First Nation Chief Simon Denechezhe said his community of about 1,000 people at Lac Brochet has been fortunate so far, with no known case up to now among residents, but says they would be in a difficult position if the virus did make its way in.

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“We are lacking in isolation spots, transportation, etc.,” said Denechezhe. Northlands received 100 doses of the Moderna vaccine in January and were able to vaccinate residents aged 65 and older. A second dose was scheduled to arrive sometime this month but may be later due to production delays. Denechezhe said having more people immunized would lessen his worries about COVID-19 particularly now during winter road season when the otherwise fly-in community is accessible by car.

“We need increased access to vaccines,” he said.

South of Lac Brochet, Barren Lands First Nation at Brochet had also been COVID-free since the virus was first detected in Manitoba about 11 months ago up until last weekend. The infected person had travelled out of the province. Three close contacts were tested and seven other households quarantined as a precaution against the virus spreading.

“It’s worked out for so long and we are glad that we haven’t had many COVID cases,” said Barren Lands Coun. John Clarke. “We’ve seen this virus spread like wildfire in other First Nations.”

Clarke’s biggest worry is the opening of the winter road and the increased access to the community that it provides.

“We have security on our winter road but people sneak in and out with snowmobiles,” he said. 

Sixty doses of COViD-19 vaccine have been administered in Barren Lands so far, to elders, health care staff and other front line workers.

East of Lac Brochet, Sayisi Dene Densuline Nation, with about 400 residents, has had residents infected with the virus before, but currently there are no positive tests.

“We’re COVID-free right now and I pray to the creator that we continue moving this way,” said Chief Evan Yassie. His First Nation received 30 vials of vaccine – about 90 doses – in January and was able to vaccinated the majority of elders and some health care workers.

Dr. Michael Routledge, medical advisor to MKO and its new health organization Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin (KIM), said First Nations citizens currently make up 30 per cent of all active COVID-19 cases in the province, and account for 36 per cent of hospitalizations and 47 per cent of intensive care admissions. The median age of First Nations citizens who have died from COVID 19 is 66, nearly 20 years younger than the median age for Manitobans as a whole who have died from the virus which is 83. He says that while it is reassuring that some MKO First Nations only saw their first COVID-19 cases within the last week, the pandemic is far from over.

“It really is critical that we have everybody continue to practise those fundamental [like handwashing, wearing masks, social distancing and staying home as much as possible],” Routledge said. “We’re still a long way from having the majority of people in communities vaccinated.”

Of 5,300 doses of Moderna Vaccine that the provincial government allocated for First Nations, MKO First Nations received just over 2,200, said MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee. Wider-scale vaccinations are set to begin after the opening of the Thompson Vaxport vaccination site at the airport, currently scheduled for March 1, which has been delayed a month due to low supplies of the Pfizer vaccine that will be administered there. The site will be used to provide community-wide vaccinations to residents of First Nations and remote communities, who will travel to the site by charted planes or buses. No individual appointments will be available at Vaxport. MKO and KiM will support the vaccination effort by providing on-site translators and greeters as well as boxed lunches for everyone being vaccinated. They will also arrange for overnight accommodation if weather conditions prevent immediate return travel.

The provincial government said Feb. 10 that Vaxport will be able to administer up to 402 vaccine doses per day once it is operational and has vaccine supplies. As of Feb. 9, 3,212 Northern Regional Health Authority residents have been vaccinated. 3,140 of them have received their first dose of vaccine only while 72 have received two doses.

“First Nations people in Northern Manitoba need access to a larger and more readily available supply of COVID-19 vaccines,” said Settee. “I want to thank all of the experts who have been working hard to prioritize the limited supply of vaccines in Manitoba. We do expect that First Nation people receive vaccines of the highest efficacy to help them access the best protection from the COVID-19 virus. In the meantime, we continue to encourage public health recommendations for social distancing, wearing masks, handwashing, and limiting travel.”

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