Eight outbreaks are currently active in Saskatchewan First Nation communities — including Buffalo River Dene Nation, Black Lake First Nation and Sturgeon Lake First Nation — as hospitalizations increase in the north zones of the province.
According to the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA), there are four outbreaks in communities within the far northeast zone, one in the far north central zone, one in the far northwest zone and two within the north central zone.
Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka, the medical health officer for NITHA, said that their daily new cases have increased to about 20 cases per day. As of Monday, there were 53 new cases in the north zones.
Almost 44 per cent of recent new COVID-19 cases in First Nations communities in Canada are from Saskatchewan, according to the latest statistics from Indigenous Services Canada. That's despite the fact only about 10 per cent of the country's Indigenous people are in the province.
In the past two weeks, there were 132 new cases in First Nation communities in Saskatchewan, more than any other province, according to Indigenous Services.
While 38 per cent of people 12 and older in the northern zones have received their second dose and 54 per cent have one dose, hospitalizations have been increasing over the past two weeks amid the delta variant-driven fourth wave.
"We continue to have some concerns for the 12 to 17 year old population. Only 39 per cent are partially vaccinated and just 23 per cent fully vaccinated. There is a greater risk for the population 11 years and below as they are not eligible to get the vaccine," Ndubuka said.
"Our hospitalizations have increased quite a bit in the past two weeks and for the most part, among the unvaccinated persons. Currently we have eight individuals in the hospital and fortunately we've not seen any fatalities yet."
Ndubuka said the displacement of communities due to forest fires and relaxed public health measures are causing the cases to rise, but the problem of vaccine hesitancy lingers.
Misinformation adds to hesitancy
"In our First Nation communities, we're also seeing vaccine hesitancy. The greatest challenge right now is social media creating a lot of misinformation and disinformation about vaccines," Ndubuka said.
Caitlin Cottrell, director of health at Birch Narrows Dene Nation, is seeing that first-hand.
"We're dealing with misinformation that you see globally, fears around vaccines. There's not the same access to public health information here as in other places. And what is being shared on social media is often sort of the most ineffective or chaotic information," she said.
While the vaccination rate in Birch Narrows is at 80 per cent, vaccine hesitancy continues to be a hurdle with majority of new cases being of the delta variant.
"We're trying to educate, provide information to the community and help dissipate some of the fears. We've been using our social media to share valid information and not spread misinformation," Cottrell said.
"We've been providing updates on our website and Facebook page and letting people know getting vaccinated is a safe and viable thing to do. We're trying to tackle any misinformation in the community as directly as we possibly can."
Infodemic and the five C's
University of Saskatchewan professor and epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine said that alongside the pandemic, the province is grappling with an infodemic — a rapid and far-reaching spread of both misinformation and disinformation.
"Internet has escalated the infodemic and made it easy for people to be misled by false information. There is misinformation going around the safety of the mRNA vaccines that it will disrupt your genetic coding or mess with your reproductive system," he said.
Muhajarine suggests foregrounding the correct information from credible sources and regularly debunking myths as a solution.
He said the five C's — confidence, complacency, convenience, counting and collective responsibility — should be considered in the framework to address vaccine hesitancy.
"We are seeing right across Canada that those who are hesitating to get a vaccine are not trusting the government. There's a lack of trust, particularly for northern communities. The lack of trust comes out of historical harms that populations have experienced, particularly indigenous populations," he said.
"And then there is a lack of confidence in the vaccine itself."
Muhajarine recommends having trusted figures in the communities like the elders, chiefs and teachers as the sources of information to encourage the vaccine hesitant groups. It should also be convenient to receive the information in an accessible way.
Communication is key to combat misinformation
Heidi Tworek, associate professor in international history at the University of British Columbia, says governments and public health authorities need to do a better job at communicating facts, including in the languages of the impacted communities.
"In some communities, it's about the fact that the resources aren't available in the languages that they would need, in others, it's about distrust of certain types of sources, like government," she said.
She suggests taking a granular approach to address these concerns with clear communication as the key. Tworek says that there are different initiatives trying to push out high-quality information, like the one she is part of.
"We are a group of artists, academics, physicians and civil society people. The idea is to make social media-appropriate videos. So that when people have questions, we ensure they have high quality information on social media and not just misinformation floating around,"she said.
"The clearer you communicate, and more often to the large number of people, the more you can try to forestall poor quality information."