More than 24,000 Indigenous people in 113 B.C. communities have received COVID-19 vaccine as Phase 2 begins
Leaders say distribution is not without setbacks including miscommunication, racism and exclusion
As the B.C. government enters Phase 2 of its COVID-19 vaccination plan, thousands of Indigenous people in rural and remote communities are celebrating getting their first and second dose of the vaccine.
But it's not without mishaps including what leaders call a lack communication, racism and outstanding questions about vaccinating urban community members.
More than 19,200 First Nations people have received their first dose of either Moderna or Pfizer vaccines and 5,258 have received their second dose. In total, 24,515 Indigenous people in 113 communities have received vaccine.
"We have been anticipating this day for an extremely long time, but we will never be able to get back what we lost" said Chief Grace George of the Katzie First Nation whose sister died of COVID-19.
The provincial government made vaccines a priority on First Nations reserves since they are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to limited housing and health care facilities and lack of trust in the health system.
Katzie leaders held a ceremony for the nurses and the vaccine in their community on Friday.
"It's a happy day for me, it is the beginning of the end of the pandemic," said Katzie Coun. Rick Bailey who was among the first to be vaccinated in his Fraser Valley community.
Bailey, 61, who almost lost his brother to COVID-19, said he was initially hesitant about being vaccinated after hearing about allergic reactions in the U.K. After doing some research, he realised it is safe and effective.
And he is not alone, 81 per cent of the Katzie community has been vaccinated.
Bailey was excited to return in 42 days to get his second shot, but those doses are now put on pause, which has caused some confusion.
Battling misinformation and miscommunication
Some Indigenous leaders were not briefed on the reason for the delay of the second dose until after the public was informed, leading to rumours that they were no longer being prioritized.
In fact, the province announced Monday it is extending the time between first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccine to four months. It means every eligible person in B.C. will receive the first dose of vaccine by mid-to late July.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control shows "miraculous" protection of at least 90 per cent from the first dose of a Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
For George, on top of addressing communication gaps, she's had to deal with misinformation and racism from non-Indigenous people who don't understand why First Nations have been prioritized.
"We sadly have many examples of how COVID-19 has impacted First Nations communities," she said.
This winter, COVID-19 cases among First Nations in the northern region were double that of the rest of population and triple in the Vancouver Island region.
She said Indigenous communities on-reserve face overcrowding with limited housing and many live in multigenerational homes, increasing the risk of transmitting the virus.
Some Indigenous people are also fearful of hospitals given the racism they've experienced, making the risks more severe.
Urban Indigenous left out
Indigenous leaders say their relatives and community members living off-reserve face the same imperils, but are not being prioritized.
"It doesn't matter where they live, our Indigenous populations are at an increased risk," said Nisga'a Valley Health Authority CEO, Brandi Trudell-Davis.
"I would like to know that there is some considerations [for those urban populations]," she said.
About 78 per cent of all Indigenous people in B.C. — including all First Nations members, Metis and Inuit — don't live on reserves.
Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer at the First Nations Health Authority, says she has been advocating for urban Indigenous people from day one.
"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.
The Ministry of Health said it will vaccinate Indigenous people aged 65 and over living off-reserve in its current Phase 2
Indigenous peoples aged 45-65 will be able to be vaccinated in Phase 3 from April through June.
CBC British Columbia is hosting a town hall on March 10 to answer your COVID-19 vaccine questions.
You can find the details at cbc.ca/ourshot, as well as opportunities to participate in two community conversations on March 3, focused on outreach to Indigenous and multicultural communities.
Have a question about the vaccine, or the rollout plan in B.C.? Email us: email@example.com
With files from Rhianna Schmunk