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Nurse practitioner Eliza Henshaw administers the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Keri Whitebear at the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation's COVID-19 immunization clinic, in North Vancouver, on March 25, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Indigenous Services Canada says it will provide $125-million in public-health funding for First Nations to bolster their responses to the Omicron variant.

As more cases of the new variant are identified in First Nations communities, it is necessary to ensure all public-health measures are in place, ISC said in a statement.

First Nations leaders and communities have told the government they need faster access to financial resources to prepare and implement public-health measures and to respond to COVID-19 outbreaks, the statement said.

The department added that First Nations can use the funds for measures that could include vaccinations and booster shoots, rapid tests, food supplies for people who are in isolation, and to update pandemic response plans.

The transfer of the funds has already started and will continue over the next couple of weeks, Indigenous Services added.

ISC Chief Medical Officer of Public Health Tom Wong said on Thursday he is “cautiously optimistic” that the Omicron wave may be flattening on reserves nationally, but public-health measures must continue for that trend to keep going. He said that based on the information available for the past week, there is reason to believe case numbers may indeed be flattening.

As of Wednesday, ISC said the current number of active cases reported on reserves was 5,097, although Dr. Wong noted this is an underestimation.

The department also said that as of Wednesday, First Nations have had 66,076 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, of which 4,898 are the Omicron variant. There have been a total of 2,544 hospitalizations, 59,389 recovered cases and 588 deaths.

ISC said the active cases count has decreased 1.2 per cent from a week ago.

“We are not seeing an increase in the number of new cases at this moment,” Dr. Wong said, adding this is a result of communities’ actions, including more vaccinations for adults and children, and following public-health measures.

Dr. Wong said it is a bit early to know whether the curve will take another upswing.

This particular strain of the virus spreads very fast, and once it gets into a community, it can quickly cause a large outbreak, he said.

Dr. Wong noted that, where there is a high degree of immunization, the COVID-19 vaccine can reduce the rate of hospitalization, admissions to intensive-care units and fatalities.

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said COVID-19 continues to be place the health of individuals and other systems in communities under stress. She also underscored the importance of immunization, adding that vaccines are reducing the severity of disease and saving lives.

Ms. Hajdu’s department said that as of Wednesday, more than 85 per cent of people 12 and older in First Nations, Inuit and territorial communities have received a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. It also said that more than 40 per cent of young people aged 5 to 11 have received at least one dose.

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