Manitoba First Nations communities with personal care homes are first in line to receive their share of COVID-19 vaccines.
On Thursday, doses of the Moderna vaccine were scheduled to be delivered to four Manitoba First Nations: Peguis, Pimicikamak (Cross Lake), Norway House and Fisher River. The Southern Chiefs' Organization and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs confirmed those communities, which are all accessible by road, will be first among 63 Indigenous communities to receive the vaccine. They are some of the largest Indigenous communities with some of the lowest overall COVID-19 case counts.
After more than a week in storage in Winnipeg, 5,300 doses that were earmarked for First Nations were expected to be sent out Thursday afternoon, after Indigenous representatives hammered out a distribution plan with the province's vaccine task force. Another 5,300 doses are expected by Feb. 23.
Plans are in the works for the next round of shipments to be sent to communities that also have personal care homes including Nisichawayasihk, Opaskwayak, Sagkeeng, Sioux Valley and Bunibonibee, according to a statement from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs issued Thursday evening.
Many rollout details were still unclear, with several chiefs telling the Free Press they weren't told how many doses they'd receive or exactly when they'd arrive. In Pimicikamak, Chief David Monias issued a statement to say 199 doses were on their way to the community about 770 kilometres north of Winnipeg, and would be first offered to personal care home residents, elders over 70 and elder care home staff. As of Wednesday, there were 29 active cases in Pimicikamak.
The first shipments of the Moderna vaccine have started being distributed to First Nations in Manitoba today.— MKO: Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (@MKO_North) January 7, 2021
Here is a first look at the process: pic.twitter.com/2KieakKSZZ
In neighbouring Norway House, Chief Larson Anderson said he was breathing a sigh of relief Thursday. His and many other First Nations imposed strict lockdown and isolation restrictions early on in the pandemic, knowing their overcrowded housing conditions could cause rapid spread of the virus.
"We've fought really hard to keep our numbers down, so now that we have a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, we're a little bit less stressed," said Anderson, who likened leading a First Nations community during a pandemic to sailing a leaky boat in a hurricane. The community of about 7,000 has seen 47 cases of COVID-19.
"We haven't had a very bad outbreak, and so if we don't get vaccinations, our luck might run out."
In Fisher River, one person has died of the virus and there were eight active cases as of Wednesday, according to a notice posted on the band's website. Chief David Crate couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.
Peguis, the largest First Nation in the province, marked 20 days without a single case of COVID-19 Thursday. Chief Glenn Hudson said the community's protocol's have "worked well" to stop the spread of the virus while still relaxing restrictions over Christmas to allow for some family gatherings. Of Peguis's 4,800 residents, about 365 are over the age of 60, and Hudson said that aging population likely played a role in bumping his community to the front of the line. But he said he couldn't comment on the criteria used to decide which communities would receive the first doses, nor did he know how many doses his community would receive.
"Our protocols that we established are far over and above the province's protocols," Hudson said.
"We've managed our pandemic plans very well, and I'm sure our vaccination plans will follow and be one of the best in Manitoba, if not the best."
In Shamattawa, one of northern Manitoba's most isolated, fly-in communities, about 40 per cent of its 1,000 residents have already contracted the virus, and there's been no word yet on when vaccines are headed there.
"They need to be on a plane, like, yesterday," Chief Eric Redhead said Thursday, adding he hadn't received any confirmation about when to expect vaccine shipments.
The military had to be called in to Shamattawa last month to help with the pandemic response. Active cases were at 23 as of Thursday, an increase since earlier this week. Redhead expressed frustration with the vaccine rollout.
"I'm very disappointed," he said. "Isolation and overcrowding are major factors in the vast spread of this virus, so you need to prioritize those communities where the risk is the greatest."
— with files from Dylan Robertson
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.