Leaders in northern Saskatchewan, which continues to grapple with COVID-19 case surges and vaccination rates lower than the provincial average, say that Saskatchewan needs stronger public health measures — including limited gathering sizes and restrictions on travel.
"We're beginning to see gatherings of large sizes and also travel in and out of the communities," said Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka, medical health officer for the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA), which represents 55,000 people on 33 different northern Saskatchewan reserves.
"I think it's important that we also begin to look at other measures above and beyond what the current public orders have provided."
Ndubuka said COVID-19 cases in northern Saskatchewan are roughly three times higher than the provincial average.
He said the seven day average for daily COVID-19 cases is 117 per every 100,000 people for on-reserve First Nations communities in northern Saskatchewan.
The provincial average is 38 per 100,000 people, according to the COVID dashboard.
Ndubuka noted that 42 per cent of people 12 and older in NITHA's jurisdiction have received both COVID vaccine doses. That number stands at about 72 per cent provincially.
Percentage of eligible Saskatchewan residents by vaccine dose
"There's a lot of spread of fear or even concerns about the safety of the vaccine and how effective it is," Ndubuka said.
"And a whole lot of myths around the vaccine."
Ndubuka said First Nations leaders are trying to counteract the misinformation by launching their own COVID vaccine information campaigns through Youtube, Facebook and TikTok.
Some First Nations are even holding COVID vaccination prize draws, with the newly vaccinated winner getting an ATV or a barbeque, Ndubuka said.
Despite the efforts, Ndubuka said further public health orders are still necessary.
"I think that will be more impactful."
Tammy Cook-Searson, Chief of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLIB), said community members have worked hard to bring vaccination rates up.
She noted that 100 per cent of people 70 years and older in Grandmother's Bay are fully vaccinated and that the LLIB has made vaccination mandatory for its staff.
She agreed with Ndubuka that the province needs to implement stricter public health orders and said contact tracing should be ramped up.
"We don't understand why the public health orders were lifted in the first place."
Cook-Searson also said the province needs to work with First Nations instead of using vaccination rates, which are also low in parts of southern Saskatchewan, as political fodder.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority did not respond to requests for an interview.