COVID-19 vaccine details for Indigenous communities 'being worked out': Sask. chief medical health officer
First Nations, Indigenous people not explicitly prioritized in province's vaccine distribution plan
The Saskatchewan government unveiled its COVID-19 vaccine delivery plan, but details like how doses will be shipped to remote and northern communities and where Indigenous people rank on the list of priorities, are still unknown.
Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine earlier this week, and the Moderna vaccine is in the approval process. The federal government expects 249,000 doses of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to arrive before the end of the month.
In anticipation of receiving its first shipment of doses, the Saskatchewan government released its vaccine delivery plan Wednesday. But First Nations and Indigenous people were not explicitly listed as priorities.
"Those details are being worked out in real time," Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, told CBC News.
The provincial governments are in charge of vaccine distribution, while the federal government covers the costs, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe told reporters following a first ministers' meeting Thursday.
Care home residents and staff, front-line health-care workers, seniors, then people aged 50 or older living in remote or northern Saskatchewan were listed as priorities in Saskatchewan's delivery plan, before the vaccine is made available to the general public.
Sask. COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan (PDF KB)
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The distribution plan follows advice from Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunizations, except for listing Indigenous communities as a priority group.
Indigenous communities suffer from socio-economic issues, such as overcrowded housing and housing conditions, that put them at greater risk of spread, should COVID-19 enter a community. While Indigenous people have higher rates of underlying health conditions like heart disease and diabetes, said David Pratt, a vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN).
"It's not just impacting the elders — it's impacting relatively healthy young people amongst First Nations," he said. "That's why we want to be on the priority list."
FSIN, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, called on both levels of government to prioritize Indigenous people for the vaccine.
The federal government is obligated through the signing of Treaty 6, Pratt said. That treaty, among other things, promises a medicine chest on reserves and rations during famine and pestilence (a fatal epidemic).
First Nations also have distribution plans prepped, based on how they distributed the H1N1 vaccine, Pratt added.
As of Dec. 10, Indigenous Services of Canada is aware of 1,470 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on reserves in Saskatchewan, according to the ministry's website.
The federal ministry does not appear to publicly track off-reserve cases, however, and the Saskatchewan government does not openly release COVID-19 data linked to First Nations in the province.
The provincial data showed there were 508 known active COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan's far north regions as of Friday.
Shipping creates logistical issue
Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone said earlier this week that they want to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine similarly to the flu shot.
"The goal is for all the residents in Saskatchewan to receive the vaccine where they live or that where they work," said Livingstone.
But figuring out how to get COVID-19 vaccine doses to remote parts of the province — including Indigenous communities — is a massive hurdle right now, said Dr. Shahab.
"It's just not a matter of sequencing; it's also the logistics of vaccine supply and delivery," said Shahab, adding that those details are currently being worked out.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored in an ultra-cold freezer at –70 C or it will spoil, while the Moderna vaccine has to be stored at –20 C.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has allotted Saskatchewan seven regular freezers and one ultra-freezer. But the Saskatchewan ministry of health procured 25 portable ultra-freezers, the province's vaccine plan said.
The province will buy more freezers so the Moderna vaccine can be stored in various parts of the province, once that vaccine is approved, the plan says.
Once the transportation and administration logistics are figured out, Shahab will consult with his colleagues in northern Saskatchewan and Indigenous Services Canada to create a plan for the Indigenous population, he said.
Those details should hopefully become more clear within the next week or two, said Shahab, adding that the province wants to create a priority sequence for the Indigenous population because those people have a lower lifetime expectancy.
The Saskatchewan government expects vaccine distribution to start before the new year and that widespread immunization could start by April 2021 — though that largely depends on vaccine manufacturing.
With files from Sam Maciag