Vaccinating Indigenous people will free up hospital beds, First Nations leaders say

Northern First Nations are pushing the province to make Indigenous Manitobans more of a priority for COVID-19 vaccines.

Northern First Nations leaders are pushing the province to make Indigenous people more of a priority

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee says First Nations should be higher on the priority list for the COVID-19 vaccine because of the higher risks Indigenous people face. (Submitted by Melanie Ferris)

Northern First Nations are pushing the province to make Indigenous Manitobans more of a priority for COVID-19 vaccines.

"We're out here making sure that our Indigenous people in the north are considered, and that they are prioritized, because of the vulnerability and the risk that they have," said Garrison Settee, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.

"I'm very optimistic, but we want to be included and we should be included in all these discussions."

As of Tuesday, First Nations patients make up one third of the COVID-19 caseload in Manitoba hospitals, according to the Manitoba First Nations Health and Social Secretariat. 

First Nations make up just under 11 per cent of Manitoba's population.

Manitoba First Nations researchers have dug into the data to make the case for why Indigenous people, both on reserve and in urban areas, should be near the front of the line to receive vaccines, given their disproportionate representation in hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions. 

"If you look at the logic, we can actually empty out half of the beds at the Health Sciences Centre if we vaccinate Indigenous peoples first," said MKO medical advisor Dr. Barry Lavallee.

The province currently has no plans to do this, according to Dr. Jazz Atwal, acting deputy chief public health officer.

Adults at risk on northern First Nations are a vaccine priority group, but health-care workers and personal care home residents are slated to get the vaccine first.

"As time goes on, day by day, that vaccine eligibility changes, but it also has to take into account who we need to protect first to make sure the system is able to manage all those sick individuals or the potentially sick individuals," Atwal said.

So far, just under 2,500 health-care workers have been vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and 5,000 more are slated to get their shots next week.

The province is also expecting a shipment this week of the Moderna vaccine, which is easier to move to remote communities.

Atwal doesn't know how much of the Moderna vaccine is coming or where it will go, he said.

With files from Bartley Kives and Cameron MacLean