Northern Ontario First Nations mass vaccination effort well underway

More than 2,800 people have been vaccinated in Ontario's northern First Nations communities since January, bringing assurance to many.

Organizers did an accelerated rollout to meet the needs of the regions, Weeneebayko official says

A team effort — Attawapiskat receives vaccines in partnerships with ORNGE Air, WAHA leadership, physicians and paramedics. (WAHA Communications)

More than 2,800 people have been vaccinated in Ontario's northern First Nations communities since January, bringing assurance to many.

It's an effort spearheaded by the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority and the province's air ambulance, ORNGE, who've organized mass vaccination clinics in Indigenous communities.

Members of the Fort Albany and Moose Cree First Nation received their first shot of the COVID-19 Moderna vaccine last week — and Moose Cree community member Leona Chilton was one of them.

She said the atmosphere of the clinic was calming, "really efficient and highly informative."

"I came out knowing more about the vaccine and what to do be smart about not spreading it around, and keeping ourselves safe."

Chilton's husband and son also received their vaccinations.

Elder Anne Tomatuk in Moose Factory receives her 1st dose of Moderna vaccine at Weeneebayko General Hospital. (WAHA Communications)

Clinic organizers say they are ahead of schedule.

The president and CEO of Weeneebayko, Lynne Innes, says the upcoming spring hunt spurred their efforts.

"Our plan was to have everybody vaccinated by March 1 with their first dose, however we are ahead of schedule because we did an accelerated rollout to meet the needs of the regions."

Chilton says she was glad to see a lot of the community's local professionals and nurses were handling the process.

"There weren't many new faces at all and it was really comforting to see that, and you can see all the thought and preparation that went into the mass clinic," she said.

"It was really evident, and things just ran so smooth. I couldn't believe how easy it was."

Chilton said she had her reservations before going to get her vaccine due to her fear of needles, but felt better afterwards.

Innes says Weeneebayko and ORNGE are close to their end goal of having 70 per cent of community members vaccinated. In the northeast, they just need to finish up in Moosonee and Moose Cree First Nation.

About 70 per cent of Kashechewan First Nation was vaccinated in a process that the community's chief says went well. A total of 731 people were given their inoculations.

"Vaccination was good and challenging," Chief Leo Friday said.

"A lot of people in the media talk about the bad news about [the vaccine], but a lot of people didn't listen to that. It went good at the end."

Ornge's Steve Darling agrees that the mass vaccination effort has been challenging at times. They're responsible for getting the vaccination teams to the remote communities in a timely manner.

"We're depending on air transport to move the teams around, so we are certainly weather dependent," the paramedic said.

"For my team in particular, we were committed to getting the vaccine into Kashechewan. We ended up staying overnight to ensure that the clinic for that day, as well as the clinic for the next day, would be able to be run."

He said he appreciates the help from the Canadian Rangers.

"They've been instrumental in moving the teams around from the airport and all our equipment," Darling said.

"They've also been involved in going door to door to generate interest and enthusiasm for these clinics."

For the past month, the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority and members of ORNGE have been working to vaccinate residents in communities along the James Bay coast. They've vaccinated almost three thousand people against COVID-19 so far... in some cases entire communities. CBC reporter Jasmine Kabatay spoke about the immunization efforts with Lynne Innes is the president and CEO of WAHA. She also spoke with Leona Chilton, a resident of Moose Cree First Nation. 7:24

With files from Jasmine Kabatay