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Despite suffering from nearly six times the national average of COVID-19 cases per capita last spring, there were just two active cases as of Friday at Blackfoot Siksika Nation

Sam Wolfleg, left, and John Taplin, centre, entertain a child while a patient speaks to a specialized health practitioner via web call.Photography by Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

While Alberta reels from record high cases of COVID-19 and examples of indifference to public-health measures abound, an hour southeast of Calgary, the Blackfoot Siksika Nation stands out as a success.

Despite suffering from nearly six times the national average of COVID-19 cases per capita last spring, there were just two active cases as of Friday. Siksika built a robust system of health care resources to support residents not only with COVID-19 but also by addressing other health and social issues in the community.

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During the pandemic, Siksika Health Services adapted to ensure a holistic response to issues such as social inequities, overcrowding, multigenerational homes and food insecurity that made the community an easy target for COVID-19. Community members with addiction who were required to isolate needed additional support.

Siksika Aisokinaipiyokiiks Sam Wolfleg prepares a COVID-19 vaccination.

The First Nation declared a local state of emergency last July as dozens of households were forced into self-isolation. It has recorded 631 cases over the course of the pandemic. Siksika Health set up an aggressive testing and contact-tracing system, conducting more than 19,000 tests so far in a community of about 4,000 people. The service also imposed curfews and other health measures that went further than the provincial government recommendations. Only three people have died.

Just over half of the First Nation has received COVID-19 vaccines – a rate above the provincial and national average for immunizations – and Siksika Health has said the nation is “well on their way to community immunity.”

The nation’s pandemic response has included the Aisokinaipiyokiiks, or Siksika Community Paramedics, which were launched just prior to the pandemic and are the first of their kind on a First Nation. While most First Nations have paramedics of their own, the Aisokinaipiyokiiks provide additional care as an extension of the primary care clinic and connect patients to additional health care resources.

The nine members of the Aisokinaipiyokiiks are all trained as advanced-care paramedics and have specialized training in primary and chronic care management. The role was created with guidance from community elders and members with a goal to provide respectful and culturally safe care. The Aisokinaipiyokiiks also expanded their role into COVID-19 response for assessment, testing and vaccinations.

In addition to dealing with COVID-19, the Aisokinaipiyokiiks connect patients with teams from Siksika Health that provide care for mental health and addictions, and other services both on and off the nation.

Photographer Gavin John rode along with the Aisokinaipiyokiiks recently as they responded to a variety of calls including medication facilitation, mental-health visits and COVID-19 vaccination deliveries.

Sam Wolfleg, centre left, and John Taplin, centre right, assist a family in their backyard in Siksika Nation.

John Taplin administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to a resident at their home.

Sam Wolfleg, right, speaks with a resident during a home COVID-19 vaccination call. Residents have had questions surrounding the vaccinations and at times don't feel comfortable going into the clinic.GAVIN JOHN/The Globe and Mail

Sam Wolfleg plays with a child of a patient, while the mother discusses care with Sam's partner.

The Bow River winds its way through Blackfoot Crossing on the Siksika Nation, a part of Treaty 7 and the Blackfoot Confederacy in Southern Alberta and an hour east of Calgary.

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