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With an epidemic poised to wipe out their entire nation, over a century ago, the Tŝilhqot’in people agreed to separate their clans and spend a full year apart from each other.

Nearly 160 years ago, that strategy of forced isolation led to a fifth of their nation surviving smallpox, according to the Tŝilhqot’in Nation’s oral history of the virus introduced by miners chasing gold in the Fraser River and the Cariboo regions of what was then the colony of British Columbia.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Tŝilhqot’in Nation has found it extremely difficult to keep residents of its six communities in central B.C. isolated and restrict non-essential travel into their territory, largely because the province failed to help with enforcement, Nits’ilʔin (Chief) Joe Alphonse says.

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Canada vaccine tracker: How many COVID-19 doses have been administered so far?

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Which COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’ are in Canada? Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Lambda explained

COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.

Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.

ALPHA (B.1.1.7)

  • Country of origin: Britain
  • Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
  • Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.

BETA (B.1.351)

  • Country of origin: South Africa
  • Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
  • Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.

GAMMA (P.1)

  • Country of origin: Brazil
  • Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
  • Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.

DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)

  • Country of origin: India
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
  • Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.

LAMBDA (C.37)

  • Country of origin: Peru
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
  • Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.

If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?

Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.

Need more answers? Email audience@globeandmail.com

Nits’ilʔin Alphonse, Tribal Chair of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government, said local RCMP refused to assist his nation, which doesn’t have its own police force, in cracking down on private gatherings among the roughly 2,000 members living on the territory. Plus, he said, the province failed to help these communities better isolate from the wider population after roadside checkpoints ceased operation following the first wave when an initial tranche of federal funding dried up.

These are some of the many jurisdictional gaps outlined in a 136-page report released by the Tŝilhqot’in on Thursday that details how the remote First Nation battled through the past year of the pandemic while trying to work with provincial agencies that were hamstrung by a “tangle of funding streams, information flows and support services.”

The report, titled Dada Nentsen Gha Yatastig (translated in English, the title means, “I am going to tell you about a very bad disease”), outlines the hardship faced by the Tŝilhqot’in during the pandemic and offers 40 recommendations for improving the ongoing response to COVID-19 – and future emergencies – to the tribal government, the province and Ottawa.

The vast majority of people living in Tŝilhqot’in territory received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a mobile clinic in January. But, after someone returning from Kelowna introduced the virus into the community, 53 people were infected and two female elders died, according to Nits’ilʔin Alphonse.

In a historic Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2014, the Tŝilhqot’in Nation became the first in Canada to win title to its land, located west of Williams Lake in the B.C. Interior. In 2019, the Tŝilhqot’in Nation and the provincial and federal governments agreed on a roadmap to transitioning the nation away from colonial governance and towards an Indigenous government with its own legal capacities and authority. However, COVID-19 caused numerous delays to many of the programs aimed at improving life in the territory, the report stated.

“In all communities and at the Nation level, most programs and services were halted during COVID-19,” the report states. “Advancements in negotiations, which rest on relationship-building and regular community engagement, were hampered. An overarching concern is that existing essential services to communities will be impacted in the future due to the financial impact of COVID-19 response on B.C. and Canada.”

Another key problem outlined in the report is that the nation could not get access to COVID-19 case data or infection rates in and near Tŝilhqot’in communities. These data gaps resulted in fear and misinformation spreading rapidly throughout the community during an incident last April, referred to in the report as “the scare.”

At the time, a Tŝilhqot’in man was released from the Mission Institution, a federal prison east of Vancouver that had one of the largest outbreaks in the province, and visited an ill family member on the territory while positive with the virus. The Tŝilhqot’in Nation was not informed by the authorities of his release and scrambled to enact a two-week lockdown and other “emergency measures in a frenzied state” to head off an outbreak, the report stated.

Last month, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer and a coalition of First Nations, including the Tŝilhqot’in, reached a compromise over data-sharing, with the province agreeing to provide more detailed data on nearby COVID-19 cases. Much work still needs to be done on this file, Nits’ilʔin Alphonse said.

B.C.’s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and federal Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller both appeared in an online video released alongside the report. Both politicians praised the report and pledged their governments would continue working with the Tŝilhqot’in Nation to improve its response to emergencies.

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