B.C. First Nations Health Authority hopes all Indigenous adults vaccinated in Phase 2

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VANCOUVER — The top doctor at British Columbia's First Nations Health Authority says she is "hopeful" all Indigenous adults in the province, including those who don't live on reserves, will be offered the COVID-19 vaccine in the second phase of the immunization program.

B.C. has so far only committed to vaccinating residents of First Nations communities and other Indigenous adults over 65 in Phase 2, despite the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommending that all Indigenous adults be vaccinated during that stage.

However, Dr. Shannon McDonald, the acting chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority, said "active planning" is underway to expand the eligibility to more Indigenous adults who live away from their home communities in the coming weeks.

"It has been an ongoing discussion with government, but there's more flexibility being shown," McDonald said. "The conversation has gone on and what's developing, though it's not all written in stone yet, is a hybrid model.

"We have the advantage now that there is vaccine available and lots more vaccine coming available in the next while."

She said the "hybrid model" would allow for extra doses to be sent to First Nations communities so that their health workers could immunize Indigenous people who live nearby but aren't members. These locations could hold drive-thru clinics or take other measures to minimize the risk of outsiders travelling into the community, she added.

McDonald also said the health authority is working with the Metis Nation British Columbia, the British Columbia Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres and other organizations that serve Indigenous people, which would hold clinics in their facilities.

Though she wasn't yet able to provide specifics such as the number of doses allotted or the Indigenous communities that might help distribute the vaccine, McDonald said she expected announcements to be made in the next week or two.

Phase 2 is set to end April 12 and McDonald has said more than 100,000 people identify as Indigenous and don't live on reserves in B.C. Asked how realistic her expectations were, the doctor said that's why she's using the word "hopeful."

"People will have options and I think that's the important piece in the discussion," she said.

She said the plan didn't mark so much a change in policy but an "evolution," and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has been supportive.

"There isn't a single path to this, but we've been very blessed that our regional health authority partners, our provincial partners and especially Dr. Henry is absolutely on board."

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended that Indigenous adults be prioritized in the second stage because the population has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and suffers from more underlying conditions.

The B.C. Health Ministry said in an emailed statement that it aligns with the committee guidelines "in terms of prioritizing Indigenous Peoples for vaccination."

"Our shared goal is to offer vaccination to as many Indigenous Peoples as quickly as possible," it said. "As vaccine supplies improve, it will be likely be possible to move through the vaccination rollout even more quickly."

The ministry did not confirm that any imminent changes are planned, but affirmed its existing policy that Indigenous people will be eligible for vaccination at an age 15 years earlier than other residents.

Indigenous-led vaccine clinics are beginning next week in locations such as Lu'ma Medical Centre and Vancouver Aboriginal Health Society to help serve eligible residents, it added.

"At this time, given vaccine availability, the focus for all Indigenous adults is specific to on-reserve communities, however the province will consider a whole community approach in situations where a community is experiencing ongoing clusters and outbreaks," it said.

The entire community of Prince Rupert, which has a sizable First Nations population, is currently undergoing such a vaccination drive, for example.

The ministry said it expects all Indigenous adults who live on reserve will have been offered a vaccine by March 31. To date, 143 of 203 First Nations communities have held immunization clinics.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2021.

Laura Dhillon Kane, The Canadian Press