There’s still no concrete timeline for when adults in Indigenous communities in Southwestern Ontario will be vaccinated against COVID-19, despite being listed as a priority group during the province’s initial rollout.
“We’re just not sure of timelines yet,” said Joel Abram, grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians. “We’re hopeful we can get everyone done by March or April.”
The uncertainty surrounding when exactly vaccines will be rolled out looms large as nearby Oneida Nation of the Thames First Nation deals with a growing outbreak that has ballooned to 36 confirmed positive cases as of Tuesday.
Abram, whose association includes seven First Nations communities in Ontario, including three in the southwest — Oneida Nation of the Thames, Delaware Nation and Caldwell First Nation — said individual First Nations are working with local public health units on vaccine rollout plans.
He added long-term care residents, seniors and front-line workers in Indigenous communities will likely be prioritized before widespread vaccination is available.
“What communities are being asked to do is formulate a plan,” Abram said. “Everyone is making their own arrangements.”
While the vaccine supply in Ontario remains low, Abram said there will be some “difficult decisions” regarding which First Nations communities get access first.
“For an isolated reserve, they can maybe control access a bit better, but once it does get into a community, overcrowding is worse,” Abram said. “The south, we have our own issues with relation to where the geographic spikes are happening. In Toronto and Southwestern Ontario, it’s kind of ramping up now.”
As of Monday, there were 338 COVID-19 cases on First Nations reserves in Ontario.
On Monday, the long-term care home in Oneida Nation of the Thames became the first such home in the Middlesex-London region to have residents vaccinated against COVID-19.
Abram said it’s essential Indigenous communities are prioritized for vaccination because of higher rates of other health conditions, such as diabetes, among Indigenous people.
“There are higher incidences of things that if you do get COVID, you could have a more dramatic effect,” he said.
Chronic overcrowding in homes and lack of housing in many First Nations communities are also issues, Abram said, meaning the virus could spread more rapidly once introduced to a household.
“My own concern, for Indigenous people, is to protect the elders,” Abram said. “In some (First Nations), language is a hard thing to come by . . . there are less than 40 fluent speakers left on Oneida. We’d like to really protect that resource.”
A First Nations and Indigenous sub-table under the province’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force has been established and includes Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford and Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald.
“As there are 133 First Nations in Ontario, each with their own logistics and practices, one plan may not encompass each community correctly,” Archibald said in an email. “Therefore, the plan for this vaccination rollout will be unique for First Nation communities.”
In Southwestern Ontario, residents and health-care workers at Iroquois Lodge Nursing Home at Six Nations of the Grand River, south of Brantford, will be vaccinated next week, she said.
“All adults in First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations where infections can have disproportionate consequences, including those living in remote or isolated areas, will be among the first to be offered the COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks,” said Stephen Warner, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones.
A plan is in the works to begin more widespread vaccinations in fly-in First Nations communities in northern Ontario, starting with the smallest and most remote. The plan was formulated with the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation and utilizes Ornge air ambulances. Some health-care workers and elders in long-term care in those regions were vaccinated last week.
“The province is working in partnership with Indigenous leaders to finalize a plan for the rest of Ontario’s Indigenous communities and urban populations,” Warner said.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press