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Veronica Apetagon receives the Moderna vaccine as doses arrived in Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba on Jan. 7, 2021.The Canadian Press

When the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Pimicikamak Cree Nation last week, the chief asked for 10 elder volunteers to receive the first doses. Almost immediately, there was a lineup at the nursing station, Chief David Monias says.

Active cases on reserve in First Nations communities across Canada has reached an all-time high with 4,384 reported as of Jan. 12. Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) announced Wednesday $1.2-billion in new funding for Indigenous communities to continue fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

ISC has reported a total of 11,502 confirmed cases on reserves since March, of which 3,082 were in Manitoba – just as an influx of vaccines has arrived. Remote Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba is one of seven First Nations to receive the first allocations of the vaccine approved for use in Manitoba against COVID-19, a week after it arrived in the province.

“It’s a historic time for us,” Chief Monias says.

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Local nurse and Pimicikamak Cree Nation member Brenda Frogge administered the first vaccination, to 70-year-old band councilor Mervin Garrick. Like other remote First Nations in Manitoba, the community of approximately 8,000 members was hit hard with COVID-19 in the second wave and has reported more than 160 cases since October, including about 57 that remain active.

“It was good to see. We’re seeing the light, we’re taking that first step,” Chief Monias told community members in a radio message that was also broadcast on Facebook live.

Manitoba received its first shipment of 7,300 Moderna doses at the beginning of January and reserved 5,300 of them for First Nations.

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Local nurses are administering the vaccine to elders and care-home staff in Northern Manitoba, where First Nations have been particularly hard hit. Ontario First Nations have seen 349 active cases and are expected to begin receiving vaccines next month. First Nations leaders and health officials say they’ve encountered some vaccine hesitancy and have geared information campaigns to address concerns, but they expect that the hesitancy will subside with time.

Chief Monias said Pimicikamak Cree Nation received 200 doses, which will go to all elders over 70 and the personal care home staff.

The number of cases among First Nations in Manitoba continue to rise disproportionately, now making up more than 60 per cent of active cases in the province and 40 per cent of new cases, according to recent data from the Manitoba First Nations pandemic team, which is tracking cases. The First Nations pandemic team has tracked over 6,500 COVID-19 cases in First Nations both on and off reserve in the province.

The Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Coordination Response Team said they are negotiating with the province’s task force and federal partners to secure an additional 5,300 doses by the end of the February.

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Leslie Apetagon receives the Moderna vaccine in Norway House Cree Nation./The Canadian Press

Dr. Marcia Anderson, a Cree physician who sits on the pandemic team, said remote communities that don’t have year-round road access have been prioritized because of transportation challenges they encounter, such as the weather, which can delay flights, particularly in the winter.

In Northern Ontario, 31 remote, fly-in communities have begun to receive their share from about 16,000 Moderna doses. As in Manitoba, First Nations leaders there too are prioritizing the vaccine for communities without road access. The Northern Ontario First Nations have not seen the same spike in cases or outbreaks as First Nations in Manitoba. The Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority has reported only 19 cases in its 31 communities since the pandemic.

Dr. Homer Tien, a Toronto-based trauma surgeon and the CEO and president of air ambulance service Ornge, sits on Ontario’s COVID vaccine task force. He says the Nishnawbe Aski Nation communities, a region of 49 First Nations, have done a good job protecting themselves from COVID-19 outbreaks, working quickly to contain and limit the spread of cases.

Ornge has already shipped Moderna doses to Sioux Lookout and Moose Factory – both health-care hubs for surrounding First Nations – where vaccinations have begun for long-term care residents and health-care workers. Dr. Tien said they are working with a number of different partners, such as the federal government’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch and the Northern Ontario Medical School, to assemble teams of paramedics, nurses and physicians that will conduct vaccination clinics “community by community”.

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A historic day for Peguis First Nation as the first Moderna vaccines are delivered residents of the Peguis Senior Centre.Peguis First Nation/Peguis First Nation

According to Dr. Tien, more than 200 health-care workers have already been vaccinated with the first dose and all vaccine team members will be fully inoculated with the required second dose before they are deployed to First Nation communities.

Dr. Tien said the vaccinators will also be screened for COVID symptoms and wear personal protective equipment when going into the communities, where anyone 18 years and older can volunteer to get the vaccine.

Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox of Nishnawbe Aski Nation said in a radio broadcast the clinics will be in the communities for about 14 hours and that aircrafts will be on standby in the event of a medical emergency from adverse effects, although Dr. Tien said he doesn’t anticipate any incidents.

What’s anticipated by both health experts and leaders however, is a vaccine hesitancy that Dr. Tien says is widespread in Ontario – a result of how quickly the vaccines were developed and approved for use.

When doses arrived at Sioux Lookout and Moose Factory hospitals last week, 85-year-old Eunice Fiddler was one of the first long-term-care patients to be vaccinated. In a video message, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said his mother volunteered to get the vaccine so she could see her children and grandchildren again. She encouraged others to do the same as a means to end the pandemic.

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Ornge paramedics Rob Terashini and Tara Williams help receive a small shipment of COVID vaccine Moderna in Thunder Bay sent from Toronto on Jan. 13, 2021.Willow Fiddler/The Globe and Mail

It’s one of the ways NAN is working to educate and inform its communities and members in preparation for the rollout.

Chiefs in the Manitoba First Nations who are already vaccinating say there’s been a small number of elders who’ve refused to get it, but Chief Monias says he thinks people will change their minds with time and when they see the vaccine is safe with little to no side effects. But, he says, the decision whether or not to get the vaccine must be an informed one.

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