British Columbia·Video

First Nations communities have fared better during pandemic than rest of B.C., FNHA says

Health officials say First Nations communities in British Columbia have fared better in the fight against the pandemic compared to the rest of the provincial population, with fewer than 90 people testing positive for COVID-19 over the past six months.

Fewer than 90 First Nations people in B.C. have tested positive for virus since January

Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority, said First Nations communities in B.C. have done a better job at fighting the spread of COVID-19 compared to the rest of the province. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Health officials say First Nations communities in British Columbia have fared better in the fight against the pandemic compared to the rest of the provincial population, with fewer than 90 people testing positive for COVID-19 over the past six months.

Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority, said 87 people tested positive for the disease between Jan. 1 and June 14. Four people have died, and there are only three active cases. 

"The worst, which many anticipated and feared, did not happen. Transmission of the virus within and near our communities was kept to a very small number," McDonald said during a press conference Friday.

McDonald said 42 of the test-positive cases live on or near a reserve.

No one under 10 years old tested positive for the virus and only six children were diagnosed between the ages of 10 and 19. There were cases in each of B.C.'s health authority regions, and a cluster in the village of Alert Bay on Vancouver Island. The outbreak at the Mission Institution correctional facility also included First Nations people.

She said more than 5,500 First Nations people have been tested for the illness since January, meaning less than two per cent of tests came back positive.

"These are really, really low numbers," McDonald said.

'The sacrifices made ... have paid off'

Officials at several levels of government have said Indigenous communities are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 due to distance, access to necessary resources, underlying health conditions and discrimination within the health-care system.

Several communities in B.C. have taken their own steps to protect residents from the virus, establishing pandemic task forces and restricting movement on their territories through checkpoints, curfews and lockdowns. Large gatherings were also postponed. 

McDonald said relative success in the case numbers must be credited to the "extraordinary" response from Indigenous leaders to implement public health measures.

"The sacrifices made, some of them very difficult and painful, have paid off," she said.

FNHA's chief medical health officer says Indigenous communities stepped up and avoided the worst but continued vigilance is still necessary:

Dr. Shannon McDonald says safety precautions remain in place, despite the low numbers of COVID-19 in B.C. First Nations. 1:53

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry also praised local leadership, saying the rest of the province needs to continue to support that work.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on June 26, 2020. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Apprehension around travel in Phase 3

Indigenous leaders say the B.C. government did not consult them before easing COVID-19 restrictions earlier this week.

The leaders of the Tsilhqot'in National Government, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) Nation have written a joint letter to the provincial government to express disappointment with its decision to move to Phase 3 of its pandemic response, saying the move could put Indigenous lives at risk.

McDonald said the decision to move to Phase 3 was "a political one."

"Despite any advice I might give, or anybody else might give, the decisions are made at other tables, but they're made very carefully," McDonald said.

"Am I concerned? Absolutely," said McDonald. "We know, from Dr. Henry, there will be cases [during Phase 3]. We're hoping, of course, those cases are not among First Nations people."

McDonald added that self-determining nations will choose not to welcome guests, as is their right.

"They can make those choices," she said. "I'm not going to disagree with them."

McDonald and Henry agreed that hand-washing, physical distancing, avoiding group gatherings and following other health-care protocols are critical to ensure communities across the province stay safe as travel increases this summer.

"This is no time to lower our guard," McDonald said.

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