Region-wide COVID-19 vaccination campaign set to begin in Quebec Cree communities

Some 12,000 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are set to begin being administered in Quebec Cree communities next week.

First advance doses of Moderna vaccine were administered in Mistissini, Que., on Tuesday

Laura Brien, a resident of the Mistissini Elders' Home, was the first person in Eeyou Istchee to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Brien received the Moderna vaccine from local nurse April Iserhoff. On Tuesday, residents of the Elders' Home, front-line health-care workers and first responders were vaccinated as part of this preliminary effort to prepare for the main campaign. (CBHSSJB/Joshua Loon)

Quebec Cree communities are set to begin an eight-week, region-wide vaccination campaign against COVID-19. 

The official campaign is expected to launch next week, but a small shipment of the Moderna vaccine arrived in Mistissini, Que., on Tuesday and began being administered to elders and front-line workers. Officials say it is a chance to test procedures and protocols in advance of the full rollout next week. 

"It's a relief...and good news," said Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum. He said the arrival of the vaccine is an important step in protecting Cree communities from COVID-19.

It's a relief...and good news.- Abel Bosum, Cree Grand Chief

"It's important because we have many vulnerable people ... should a member of one family catch it, that would spread like wildfire." 

Some 1,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine were part of the test run in Mistissini. The community was chosen, in part, because of its size and location close to larger regional centres considered COVID-19 hot zones, such as Chibougamau and Lac St. Jean, according to Chief Thomas Neeposh. 

"Mistissini was chosen because it's a big community. It is close enough [to hot zones] that people can get the virus.  That's why we were chosen. And we're ready because we have doctors and nurses ready to give the vaccines," said Neeposh on Tuesday in a message shared on Facebook in Cree at the Mistissini elders home where the first doses were administered.

Grand Chief Bosum said Cree leadership is working hard to secure 12,000 doses of the vaccine that will be delivered in all of the Cree communities beginning next week. 

Jason Coonishish, coordinator of Pre-Hospital Services and Emergency Measures brings an advance shipment of Moderna vaccines towards Mistissini clinic. The regional vaccination campaign for Eeyou Istchee is expected to begin next week. (CBHSSJB/Joshua Loon)

Elders, front-line workers and people with underlying health conditions will be prioritized in the early days of the vaccination campaign, according to officials.

"The vulnerable people of all of our communities need to be prioritized. And eight weeks [is] not long to wait so that ...your father, your mother or grandparents can go first," said Bosum, in a livestream with health board officials organized earlier this week.

Bosum also encouraged people to educate themselves with credible information about the vaccine and said he's hopeful that people's fears will disappear when they see how well the vaccine is tolerated and how effective it is.

"Those who have taken [the vaccine] will be able to share with those who are not sure.- Abel Bosum, Cree Grand Chief

"Hopefully those who have taken it will be able to share [their experience] with those who are not sure.. And hopefully through that, more and more people will take it," said Bosum, who plans to get vaccinated next week when it arrives in his community.

"As a husband [and with a] wife and family members that have compromised immune systems...I will not hesitate to take the Moderna vaccine when it's available in my community."

It was a message echoed by Bertie Wapachee, chairperson of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, who also took part in the livestream. 

Bertie Wapachee, chairperson of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay. He and other Cree officials took part in a livestream Monday evening to answer questions about the region-wide vaccination campaign set to begin next week. (CBHSSJB livestream)

"I haven't been vaccinated in a very long time. But in this case, it's special to me and I have full trust," said Wapachee. 

It is my choice to protect the people…[that] I will get to meet this year. That's my option and I will take it."

The Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay has made information available about the campaign and the Moderna vaccine and officials say the information will be updated as the vaccination campaign gets underway. 

Handful of cases, no community transmission

Quebec Cree communities have maintained a series of restrictions throughout the pandemic, including mandatory two-week isolation periods for anyone travelling from a red-zone and community checkpoints, among others.

With only a handful of cases and no community transmission, Grand Chief Bosum said the vaccines will be another important tool to help keep Cree communities safe. 

"We certainly hope that this will be the answer to dealing with the COVID-19 problem in our region," said Bosum. He also added that all the COVID-19 measures in place since March need to be maintained for the foreseeable future. 

The Moderna vaccine was approved for use in Canada before Christmas. It has been used in the United States since mid-December and has also been approved for use in Israel.

It is also now being used in Nunavut, the N.W.T. and Yukon. 

The vaccine is delivered in two doses that are at least 28 days apart, according to Marie-Jo Ouimet, the head of Cree public health. She said the Moderna vaccine has been tested on at least 30,000 people prior to its approval for use in Canada and is very safe. 

"This means that the testing was very, very rigorous," said Ouimet, who also took part in the livestream. 

"It took almost one year to develop and test this vaccine. The vaccine is monitored continuously during vaccination campaigns to ensure its safety."

Ouimet said the Moderna vaccine has been shown to be 95 per cent effective against the coronavirus. 

The vaccine has not yet been approved for use by people under the age of 18 or pregnant or breastfeeding women, she added.