COVID deaths of 2 young First Nations people a reminder of gaps in system: Anderson
1 was a man living in Winnipeg, the other was a woman in northern Manitoba
One of the leaders of Manitoba's fight against COVID-19 was struggling Wednesday with the news that two of the three deaths announced earlier in the day are First Nations people in their 20s.
"It's hard. It's really heavy," said Dr. Marcia Anderson, public health lead of the Manitoba First Nations pandemic response team.
Anderson said to her knowledge, neither person — a man and a woman — had underlying chronic illness. The woman was from the Northern health region, and the man was from Winnipeg. His death was linked to an unspecified variant of concern, according to a provincial release.
"It's a stark reminder that the gaps that we experience are rooted in long-standing challenges, whether that's housing, health-care access, income, food insecurity, the impacts of intergenerational and direct trauma and even with our best programmatic responses we cannot close those gaps without structural solutions."
More than one-third of Manitoba's known active cases — 798 — are First Nations people, according to Anderson's team. She said severe outcomes like these are not common, but the disproportionate impact of the disease on First Nations people is getting worse.
"Of course we're very concerned due to the rising cases due to (new variants), but also very concerned that one of those people would have had access to vaccine and one of them wouldn't and they were both clearly at risk of the same severe outcome."
Equal vaccine access sought for on-reserve and off
She said her team continues to advocate for off-reserve members to have the same access to vaccines as those on-reserve, which has been 18 and older.
Anderson said case numbers and test positivity among First Nations in the north have dropped, whereas test positivity among urban Indigenous populations has risen. The five-day test positivity is 10 per cent off-reserve, compared to nine per cent on-reserve, and off-reserve people are now experiencing higher case hospitalization rates, case isolation rates and case fatality rates compared to on-reserve populations.
"We want to encourage all people as much as possible to limit their non-household contacts, to follow those public health orders, to stay home as much as possible, to follow the gathering size limits, to not be visiting and to get vaccinated as soon as they're eligible," she said.
"This vaccine is effective. Particularly after two doses. And … this vaccine is safe. Serious side effects that have been seen with the AstraZeneca and the Johnson and Johnson are very, very rare. And have not been seen with either Moderna (or) Pfizer."
Anderson said she had a call with several chiefs Wednesday in which they reported vaccine uptake of more than 80 or 90 per cent in their communities.
"We hope to continue to see that grow," she said.
She added First Nations people continue to suffer worse outcomes from the virus, with the median age of death being nearly 20 years lower than for the province as a whole.
"We're not going to see these outcomes change unless we have long term sustained investments to address the structural gaps that contribute to these outcomes."
With files from Nicholas Frew and Erin Brohman