Over 8,000 Indigenous people now vaccinated against COVID-19 in Northern Ontario

More than 8,000 Indigenous people in First Nations communities in Northern Ontario have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the provincial health ministry.

Province says vaccine rollout in Indigenous communities is part of Operation Remote Immunity

Shipments of the Moderna vaccine arrived in Fort Albany, Ont. in January. (WAHA Communications)

More than 8,000 Indigenous people in First Nations communities in Northern Ontario have been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the provincial health ministry.

As mobile teams fly into remote communities, a new website developed in part by Toronto health care professionals and an educational campaign created by a regional health authority are trying to counter vaccine hesitancy among Indigenous people.

Dr. Lisa Richardson, an internal medicine specialist, an Anishinaabekwe physician, and a strategic lead in Indigenous health at the University of Toronto faculty of medicine and at Women's College Hospital, said vaccine hesitancy is rooted in historical mistreatment.

"This is hesitancy that's been created because of a healthcare system that has deliberately, in many cases, excluded Indigenous people," Richardson said on Saturday.

Mistrust of the health care system persists in communities because Indigenous people have been mistreated and used as subjects in experiments by Canadian health care institutions, Richardson said.

She said that mistreatment started with colonial approaches. It includes the experience of children in residential schools. Ongoing mistreatment continues to occur in the health care system due to systemic racism, she said.

Richardson said the website, called Maad'ookiing Mshkiki — Sharing Medicine, is an attempt to overcome vaccine hesitancy. Launched on Feb. 4, the website provides information about COVID-19 vaccinations for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people to help them make informed choices. She said the website information is of high quality, scientifically and culturally.

"The creation of culturally relevant educational materials that allow Indigenous people to make informed choices about the vaccines is critical," she said.

The website was developed by the Centre for Wise Practices in Indigenous Health at Women's College Hospital in Toronto, the Indigenous Primary Health Care Council, Anishnawbe Health Toronto, the Indigenous Health Program at University Health Network and Shkaabe Makwa — an Indigenous-focused branch of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

According to Women's College Hospital, the website contains videos, fireside chats and resources that are culturally relevant for Indigenous communities and that draw upon expertise and wisdom of community members, elders, knowledge keepers, traditional practitioners and Indigenous physicians.

Caroline Lidstone-Jones, CEO of the Indigenous Primary Health Care Council, said in the release: "This project provides accessible resources that are grounded in Indigenous histories, cultures, and worldviews.

"By sharing traditional knowledges and healing practices along with western, scientific information about vaccines, these resources provide information to enable and empower people to make informed decisions about their own health and wellbeing."

Operation aims to vaccinate 31 communities by end of April

In January, the Ontario government launched what it calls Operation Remote Immunity, a campaign led by Ornge, the province's air ambulance service, that aims to vaccinate adults in 31 fly-in First Nations communities and Moosonee in Northern Ontario.

As of Wednesday, more than 8,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered in Sioux Lookout and communities within the scope of the operation, the health ministry said in an email on Saturday. 

Twenty-one fly-in communities have received doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The operation is aiming to complete all first and second doses in the 31 fly-in communities and Moosonee by the end of April.

Operation well underway, province says

The ministry said in the email that the operation is well underway.

"Immediate priorities for first-dose vaccination include First Nations elder care homes and Indigenous adults in northern remote and higher risk communities, including on-reserve and urban communities. The next priority group for first-dose vaccination will include all Indigenous adults," the ministry said.

"Work to make vaccinations available to all residents in high-risk retirement and First Nations elder care homes is well underway and nearing completion. Public health units have been working closely with First Nations to ensure it is being done in a way that is appropriate for the communities and homes," the ministry added.

"We continue to work closely with Indigenous communities and partners to support them in a culturally safe and appropriate manner."

Lynne Innes, president and CEO of the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) and a nurse practitioner, says: 'I believe we have come a long way on vaccine hesitancy.' (Submitted by Lynne Innes)

Testimonials on social media explain importance of vaccine

Lynne Innes, president and CEO of the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) and a nurse practitioner, based in Moose Factory, Ont., said the health authority has launched a communications campaign in every single community it is vaccinating to counter vaccine hesitancy.

The authority has circulated information through the radio, gone door to door with flyers in the Cree language and posted on Facebook and Twitter.

"The hesitancy in the region has been brought on from historical issues with vaccines. A lot of the information that is circulating, unfortunately, is misinformation and information on social media that is not accurate is causing some hesitancy," she said.

"There is some hesitancy around the First Nations feeling like they are guinea pigs. However, we have reassured them that the clinical trials had over 30,000 people and we certainly are not guinea pigs."

In the campaign, testimonials by elders, chiefs, staff people and health care professionals are being posted on Facebook, Twitter and its website to explain why they have been vaccinated, she said.

Innes said 3,600 people in six Indigenous communities within the health authority have been vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine. Everyone who wanted a first dose has had one, she said. Three hundred out of the 3,600 have received a second dose. The authority received its first doses in the first week of January.

In five communities, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Moose Factory, Moosonee and Peawanuck, 70 per cent of people have been vaccinated, while in one, Attawapiskat, 60 to 65 per cent of people have been vaccinated. In Fort Albany, 94 per cent of people were vaccinated.

Initially, all the elders were hesitant because they felt young people should be vaccinated first out of concern about limited supply, but the elders were reassured that they were the most at risk and vulnerable and that children are resilient in the face of COVID-19. They were told that the region wanted to protect its knowledge keepers, she said.

"I believe we have come a long way on vaccine hesitancy," she said.

Joe Hester, executive director of Anishnawbe Health Toronto, said in the release about the new website: "COVID-19 vaccines are good medicine. They will protect you, your family, our elders and our communities."

With files from Zacharie Routhier