Encouraging signs in northern Manitoba as First Nations vaccine eligibility expands, doctor says
MKO grand chief says Indigenous people should decide who qualifies for priority vaccine access
Northern Manitoba may be starting to see the early benefits from the province's vaccine rollout, as eligibility expands to include more First Nations people.
Although COVID-19 case numbers in northern Manitoba remain higher than health officials would like to see, there have been some encouraging signs in recent weeks, says one doctor.
"There's some preliminary trends that suggest hospitalizations ICU numbers are down a bit, severe cases are down a bit," said Dr. Michael Routledge, a medical advisor to Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin — MKO's health and wellness agency.
"A lot of the activity that we have been seeing is in children … and young adults, who are much lower risk for severe cases."
Some communities, like Pimicikamak in northern Manitoba, continue to struggle with large outbreaks, but others have seen relatively low levels of activity, Routledge said.
However, "we're still seeing transmission at higher rates than we'd like to in the north," he said. On Thursday, the Northern Health Region reported the second-highest number of new COVID-19 cases, with 30 new infections, compared to 31 in Winnipeg.
On Thursday, the province expanded vaccination eligibility, slightly changing the age limits announced a day before.
Now, First Nations people, with or without status, born on or before Dec. 31, 1946, can call to book an appointment for vaccination. For other Manitobans, the current eligibility is for people born Dec. 31, 1926, or earlier.
The lower eligibility age for First Nations people is due to lower life expectancy and disproportionately severe outcomes from COVID-19, health officials have said.
Dr. Marcia Anderson, head of the Manitoba First Nations pandemic response team, said those booking vaccines will initially be able to self-identify as a First Nations person.
In the coming weeks, a screening process will be put in place to vet claims of Indigenous identity, to keep non-First Nations people from trying to take advantage of the lower age requirement.
Identification 'complex' issue: MKO grand chief
Garrison Settee, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak — the advocacy group that represents northern Manitoba First Nations — said the issue of identification is "complex," and it should be up to Indigenous people themselves to determine who qualifies.
"It should not be left up to an external entity to define who you are," he said during an online update on COVID-19 and vaccination in northern First Nations, streamed via Facebook Live on Thursday.
"We know who we are and we know our identity," he said, adding the focus should be making sure COVID-19 vaccines are available to everyone who needs them.
"It's not a matter of politics to me, it's a matter of the well-being of our people."
In a letter to federal Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, Settee said vaccination decisions affecting First Nations are being made by people who don't have the knowledge of the geography or demographics of the communities.
He advocated for MKO medical advisor Dr. Barry Lavallee to be appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Immunizations as a representative for northern Manitoba First Nations.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Anderson said there are many circumstances where a First Nations person might not be eligible for a status card. They might have a grandmother who lost her status by marrying a non-First Nations man, or they may have been adopted out during the Sixties Scoop.
Allowing First Nations people to self-identify would be "more in line with Indigenous rights and would respect the ways that colonization has served to disenfranchise First Nations people," she said.
However, Anderson acknowledged people could abuse that open system by falsely claiming First Nations identity.
In coming weeks, specially trained teams will seek to verify the Indigenous identity of people seeking vaccination in a sensitive and trauma-informed way, Anderson said.
'Where are the Métis?'
Only First Nations people born before 1947 are currently eligible — Inuit and Métis people are grouped in with the rest of the population.
Representatives of Métis and Inuit organizations in Manitoba have called for similar consideration to be given to non-First Nations Indigenous people. On Wednesday, Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand said he has been waiting for a meeting with the province's vaccine implementation task force to share his concerns.
Michelle Driedger, a community health professor at the University of Manitoba, said many Métis people face challenges similar to those of First Nations, including lack of access to adequate housing and clean drinking water.
"I keep wondering, where are the Métis being included in all of this?" she said.
"The Métis is a very strong nation of people who share very closely in health-based experiences and circumstances as our First Nations relatives ... and yet Metis are not included in any of these plans, and that silence is deafening."
A new online data portal showing the progress of the vaccine rollout in Manitoba First Nations launched on Wednesday. As of Feb. 19, a total of 7,023 doses had been administered by First Nations, with six per cent of on-reserve adults having received a first dose.
The opening of the Thompson Vaxport vaccination supersite, originally set for March 1, has been pushed back by three weeks, MKO said in a press release Thursday. The site is intended to serve First Nations people in the surrounding area.
Starting next week, Vaxport clients will be redirected to the Thompson Regional Community Centre while Vaxport is undergoing renovations.
The provincial government says about 1,000 people from remote communities will be transported either by plane or bus to the site.
With files from Jillian Coubrough