OTTAWA — First Nations leaders are trying to drum up an interest in COVID-19 vaccinations and fight conspiracy theories to avoid a catastrophic third wave.

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OTTAWA — First Nations leaders are trying to drum up an interest in COVID-19 vaccinations and fight conspiracy theories to avoid a catastrophic third wave.

"We’re going to see even higher hospitalization rates in even younger First Nations people, if we don’t do something about it," Dr. Marcia Anderson said Friday, just moments after Manitoba officials said the province has entered its third wave of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"What we’re at the edge of, is more First Nations young adults being infected and experiencing severe outcomes."

At a virtual briefing, Anderson said the stance is based off how more infectious variants in Ontario and Saskatchewan have resulted in people in their 30s ending up on ventilators. In Ontario, the largest cohort of active cases are people aged 20-29, followed by people under 20.

Ever since the pandemic started last year, First Nations have been over-represented in Manitoba hospital wards and death counts, particularly at younger ages.

Anderson, a medical officer with the First Nations Pandemic Coordination Response Team, noted it’s currently off-reserve First Nations people who seem to be ending up in hospital lately, despite more active cases occurring on reserves.

"The most important thing we can do is get vaccinated," said Anderson, though she added people still need to physically distance and wear face masks. "We should all be very concerned."

Officials noted Manitoba might change immunization criteria, which currently sits at age 40 and up for off-reserve First Nations people.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theories are preventing some from getting shots on reserves.

Melanie MacKinnon, a nurse co-leading an effort to vaccinate all adults on reserves, said First Nations will be able to request 60 per cent of the doses they were supposed to receive this month, and get the rest later.

She said the move is "a mitigation, to reduce any potential risk of wastage. (There are) lots of lessons learned."

Reserves such as Long Plain had offered doses to non-Indigenous people in Portage la Prairie, after struggling to get band members to book appointments, while other reserves are offering door prizes to drum up interest.

MacKinnon said the first 11 First Nations to get large shipments managed them well, immunizing as many as 400 people a day.

"The stewardship has been remarkable, to make sure that we’re not wasting any doses, and that, where appropriate, we are co-operating and sharing with other First Nation communities that are currently still waiting," she said.

Pimicikamak Chief David Monias said 65 per cent of his community (also called Cross Lake) has had one shot of the vaccine, but he wants more people to step up.

"Cross Lake lost 46 per cent of its citizens, its band members, in the (1918-20) Spanish Flu," Monias said. "I was not going to let that happen" with COVID-19.

Monias noted some have criticized band councils for offering door prizes at vaccination clinics.

"I’m not ashamed of that," he said. "Whatever I can do to help my people, to make sure that they are safe with the (vaccines)."

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas suggested conspiracy theories are posing a major obstacle to vaccination.

"I’m just a little bit frustrated about all of the conspiracies," said Dumas. "Fundamentally, we need to protect and help everyone persevere."

Dumas said First Nations need to heed the lessons of past epidemics, when vaccines were not available.

"In my home community of Pukatawagan, there are three mass graves from different pandemics that came through. Go ask the elders about it, they’ll tell you," he said, adding COVID-19 is hitting close to home.

"I had a cousin on life support; my cousin is a lot younger than me. That was a reality check. We’re not immune and it will impact us."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca