As the first COVID-19 vaccines make their way to First Nations communities across Manitoba, leaders are being confronted with fear and misinformation about immunization.
A small proportion of elders eligible for the Moderna vaccine have refused it, some citing concerns about being among the first groups of people to receive it, chiefs said during a virtual news conference Tuesday organized by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.
In some places, eligibility criteria for the vaccine had to be expanded, with age limits lowered, to ensure doses didn’t go to waste after some elders refused the vaccine.
First Nations communities with personal care homes were the first to share an initial shipment of 5,300 Moderna doses, designated by the federal government for Indigenous people. Those living in personal care homes and elders aged 70 and up, as well as front-line health-care workers, were given priority.
Now, some younger than 70 are being vaccinated.
In Norway House, one of the largest First Nations north of Winnipeg, three of 120 eligible elders initially refused the vaccine; so far, 90 elders there have been vaccinated. In neighbouring Pimicikamak, two elders refused the vaccine.
Refusal rates are much the same in York Factory, said Chief Leroy Constant.
"The fear is, ‘Why are they giving it to First Nations people first? Why do we have to be the first ones to try it?’ Well, simply, because we’re the most at risk," he said.
"That’s the messaging that’s been, I guess, hard to get out to community here."
The community of roughly 400 has received 20 doses. Half was deployed earlier this week; with the expectation of vaccinating the remaining 10 people Tuesday, Constant said.
"We’ve had to expand the criteria a bit due to some of the older elders refusing... They want to wait a little bit," he said.
Some of those concerns are rooted in colonization, with elders used to having medical practices forced on them, and others just want to be sure they’re giving informed consent.
Another shipment of 5,300 doses is expected to reach First Nations communities by late February.
The spread of the novel coronavirus has disproportionately affected Indigenous people — who account for 64 per cent of all active COVID-19 cases in the province, and 38 per cent of intensive care patients, according to the Manitoba First Nations Pandemic Response Coordination Team.
Such numbers are why Indigenous communities were among the first in Canada, along with health-care workers and long-term care residents, to be offered the vaccine.
Dr. Mike Isaac, medical health officer for Northern Health Region, said lockdown measures in many First Nations communities were effective early on, but the spread of the virus in southern Manitoba, coupled with restriction fatigue, has meant some are now experiencing their first wave of the pandemic.
"When you add everything up, the overcrowded housing, the lack of immunity in those populations, it can lead to spread, and faster spread than you might see in some other locations," Isaac said.
Trepidation about new vaccines is normal — health officials saw it in Indigenous communities during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, Isaac said.
"It’s natural to have a bit of fear if you’re the first," he said, saying the majority of people appear to be receptive and enthusiastic about receiving the vaccine. "We have a lot of work to do around communicating that this vaccine is safe and effective."
On Jan. 7, Mervin Garrick, a band councillor in Pimicikamak, was the first person in a Manitoba First Nations community to be vaccinated. Since then, many people have contacted him to ask about his experience, he said Tuesday.
"We’ve all been waiting for the vaccine, all Canadians... and now it’s arrival here, there shouldn’t be any fear to try and get it," Garrick said.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.