Officials with Cree public health in northern Quebec say the spread and severity of recent COVID-19 cases in the population show how important getting vaccinated is.
In mid-August, there was an uptick in cases among the Cree population, first with an outbreak of COVID-19 on the Waswanipi Chiefs hockey team and then with a series of cases affecting Cree patients staying in Montreal. As well, there have been isolated cases in other Cree communities.
"We have seen a much higher risk of getting the infection to begin with, in people who are unvaccinated or in people who have had only one dose," said Dr. Colleen Fuller, a public health and preventive medicine physician with the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay.
Cree health is also seeing more severe infections in unvaccinated people, according to Fuller, similar to what is happening in other regions of Quebec and Canada.
"We have had several people hospitalized over the last couple of weeks and more severe disease in people who are unvaccinated."
[We see] more severe disease in people who are unvaccinated. - Dr. Colleen Fuller, Cree public health
Some of the recent positive cases affecting Cree were among people who were fully vaccinated, she added, but the symptoms those patients experienced were, for the most part, less severe.
Vaccination rates in the overall Cree population stand around 64 per cent, in large part due to a high number of youth and children in Cree communities who aren't yet eligible.
In Cree people who are 18 years and older, around 85 per cent are fully vaccinated. In the population that is 12 to 17 years old, the vaccination rate is around 71 per cent, according to Cree health board numbers.
The number of fully vaccinated people who are 12 years old or older varies widely from community to community, according to numbers from Sept. 14 from the Cree Nation Government.
According to Cree health board numbers from Tuesday, in Wemindji, 99 per cent of those 12 and up are fully vaccinated. That compares with 79 per cent in Chisasibi, Mistissini and Waswanipi.
When youth under the age of 12 are included, those numbers drop to 80 per cent in Wemindji and 61, 64 and 60 per cent respectively for Chisasibi, Mistissini and Waswanipi.
Fully vaccinated still at risk
Fully vaccinated people with underlying health conditions are still at risk of serious complications from COVID-19, Fuller said.
As the fourth wave continues to build across Quebec and the delta variant is increasingly present, Fuller said she is most concerned about protecting those with underlying health conditions and convincing those people still hesitant to get vaccinated.
"[My concern] is based around people's decision not to be vaccinated and the impact that people sometimes don't see of that choice on other people," said Fuller.
"I'm thinking of somebody fully vaccinated or severely immune suppressed acquiring the infection from an unvaccinated visitor," said Fuller.
Cree public health, like the province of Quebec, is recommending fully vaccinated people who are on dialysis or who are immunocompromised to get a third dose of vaccine.
Cree COVID-19 cases declining
At least eight positive cases were identified in August among players and family of the Waswanipi Chiefs hockey team, though all have since fully recovered.
In early September, a total of nine people tested positive for COVID-19 at the Hotel Espresso in Montreal, where Cree patients and their escorts stay when they travel south for medical appointments. Fuller said an internal investigation showed there was no local transmission at the hotel and that it is now safe to stay there.
At any given time, around 200 Cree patients and escorts are staying at the hotel while they are receiving medical care in Montreal.
As of Wednesday, there were two active cases, both isolating outside of Cree territory, according to Cree health.