Confusion about First Nations access to vaccine persists as B.C. rollout continues

·4 min read
Musqueam Elder Ben Campbell received his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday.  (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC  - image credit)
Musqueam Elder Ben Campbell received his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC - image credit)

Elder Ben Campbell was among the first people in Musqueam First Nation to get his COVID-19 vaccination on Tuesday. He said it's been a challenging year and he was feeling good about having his first dose of vaccine.

"There was really nothing to it; just a little sting," he said.

Protecting elders has been a priority among First Nations during the pandemic. Tuesday's clinic in Musqueam was a welcome step in continuing that work.

But vaccine rollout hasn't been without its hiccups. For urban First Nations like Musqueam, which is adjacent to Vancouver, there's been frustration and confusion around access and what kind of vaccine allocation they can expect.

"Originally in the plan we were supposed to get our whole community done," said Chief Wayne Sparrow.

Instead, the First Nation learned last week it would be getting only enough doses for elders and people with underlying health conditions for its first vaccine clinic. Even in the 24 hours leading up to the vaccinations it still wasn't clear exactly how many doses would be arriving in the community.

Richard Jock, CEO of B.C.'s First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), which is responsible for health services for First Nations in B.C., said the approach to vaccinations in First Nations communities has been one that takes a "whole of community" approach.

Elder Joan Peters, who got her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Musqueam on Tuesday says, 'Everyone should get it done, I'd say.'
Elder Joan Peters, who got her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Musqueam on Tuesday says, 'Everyone should get it done, I'd say.'(Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC )

That approach includes for example the spouses of band members, essential workers who come in and out of the community and off-reserve community members who live nearby.

"We have a lot of community members that live five, 10 minutes off the reserve and a lot of them come home to the community," said Sparrow.

For Musqueam, Sparrow said they seem to be back on the right track as they're expecting to get another allocation of vaccines for the rest of the community next week.

Other communities, like Tsleil-Waututh also in the Vancouver area, still don't have clarity on when they'll get enough doses for the whole community.

Questions on distribution

Tsleil-Waututh will be getting its first access to vaccines on Thursday. Chief Leah George-Wilson said they've heard they'll only be getting enough doses for elders and those with underlying health conditions to start.

"Our issue has been some communities that have received whole community immunization," she said.

"We don't begrudge them that. Great, they're able to get it. But how are you valuing their 18-year-olds compared to our 91-year-olds that couldn't get vaccinated until we pressed the province for it."

First Nations leadership says there is still confusion about how decisions are being made on vaccine allocation, even as they're in regular contact with the provincial health ministry, First Nations Health Authority and the local regional health authorities.

Last week First Nations leaders in B.C. said the province's updated COVID-19 immunization plan had deviated from national guidelines that priority should be given to all Indigenous adults within the first two stages of vaccine rollout.

It remains unclear to leadership how direction from the province is flowing through the different bodies involved in distribution.

"We'd like to understand better what the rollout has been. And we have said that to FNHA. We met with them yesterday and said to them, we'd like to understand what your methodology was," said George-Wilson.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said during the Tuesday COVID-19 briefing he's aware of the concerns among some First Nations and acknowledged that some communities have received vaccines for the whole community, while others have not.

"Now that we've freed up some access to vaccine we'll be able to continue on with more of a 'whole of community' approach and you'll be seeing that in the coming weeks," he said.

As First Nations await more clarity, there's still a sense of relief as the most vulnerable are getting access to vaccines.

"We're trying to get everyone protected as best we can," said Sparrow.