Written by: Karissa Ketter, News Writer

First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) vice-president of public health response team Katie Hughes reported as of February 16, 2021 they have vaccinated nearly 16,000 people in Indigenous communities. This includes peoples in just over 90 communities. The FNHA is aiming to ensure that all 203 Indigenous communities “have access to vaccines as soon as possible.”

Chief medical officer Dr. Shannon McDonald reported the FNHA aimed to have the first dose of the vaccine administered to those who want one by the end of March 2021 in all remote communities. 

McDonald said, “After the holidays, we saw a significant spike in active cases — we were up over 1,000 active cases at the time. Sadly, we have suffered many losses.” There had been a total of 68 deaths.

“In the context of vaccine shortage, we have not been able to completely meet the goals we have set, but we have used every single dose that we have been given to vaccinate as many people as possible — starting with our most remote communities,” added McDonald. 

FNHA has been primarily administering Moderna vaccines at this time. Moderna vaccines do not require ultra-cold temperatures like Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines do, making them easier to administer in remote locations. 

McDonald confirmed one of the FNHA’s “biggest challenges has been the amount of vaccines.”

Chief nursing officer Dr. Becky Palmer said the FNHA has been working “alongside our communities to roll out a very intentional, strength-based, culturally safe, whole-community approach to ensure that our people get the vaccine they need, should they choose to take it.”

McDonald said, “I know that the province’s goal is to maximize the number of people that can be vaccinated, but we also want to make sure that the people who walk in the door are happy with what happened while they were in the doors.” She noted her concern that mass vaccination sites in urban locations may be overwhelming for Indigenous elders. 

McDonald said, “Leaders are coming back to us and saying they have responsibility for all of their members no matter where they live. Unfortunately, in the context of vaccine shortage, there have been extreme limitations as to how and where we can provide vaccines.”

The Ministry of Health and regional health authorities are working in partnership with the FNHA to focus on the planning of the mass vaccine rollouts.

Part of implementing cultural safety and meaningfulness “is that we have ceremony around it, that we’re blessing the vaccine in advance, that those teachings that have been held so dear are brought forward.” Palmer explained she wants to ensure this is a transformative experience for Indigenous peoples — not strictly transactional.

“We are sitting on tables with the province to share what we know, to share our learnings thus far to build on the strengths from our communities,” said Palmer. “Folks aren’t going to come through the door if they don’t feel like it’s a trusted, safe place to do so.”

She added it is important to reinforce this process by telling “a different story — one that [Indigenous peoples] can own themselves and their own health and wellness journey.”

Dr. Nel Weiman recognized the great deal of stress and uncertainty everyone is currently experiencing. She reminded everyone that until public safety guidelines are lessened, it is important to continue to respect them. 

“Despite the vaccine rolling out, we need to maintain those public health measures that we’ve been talking about from the beginning: wear[ing] a mask, being physically distant, staying in our immediate household bubbles for now, washing your hands regularly,” said Weiman.