Why these vaccine-hesitant Indigenous women in N.W.T. decided to get the jab

·5 min read
Despite concerns about the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine, how it was 'pushed upon small N.W.T. communities' and the legacy of medical experiments on Indigenous peoples, Jessica Deleary and Stephanie Beaverho decided to get the shot. (Jessica Deleary/Stephanie Beaverho - image credit)
Despite concerns about the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine, how it was 'pushed upon small N.W.T. communities' and the legacy of medical experiments on Indigenous peoples, Jessica Deleary and Stephanie Beaverho decided to get the shot. (Jessica Deleary/Stephanie Beaverho - image credit)

When the COVID-19 vaccine was made available in the North, Jessica Deleary wasn't sure she was going to get it.

"I was kind of hesitant, just because of the speed with which it was created," said the resident of Dettah, a First Nations community just outside Yellowknife. "[W]e don't know exactly what's inside [it] and we don't know what's going to happen, what the long-term side effects are. And those were real, real concerns for me, especially because I was expecting."

The mother of five asked several doctors if the vaccine was safe for her while she was pregnant. Some told her yes, while others said it might be a good idea for her to stick with her gut feeling and wait.

Deleary was also concerned about how the vaccine was pushed on small, Indigenous N.W.T. communities.

Jessica Deleary
Jessica Deleary

"Historically speaking in Canada, there was a lot of experiments on Indigenous communities and Indigenous children. And so to me, the way that it was pushed on small, N.W.T. Indigenous communities was kind of also worrisome," she said.

After talking it out with her partner, who was also vaccine-hesitant, she decided to get the Moderna vaccine on Sept. 9, about two weeks after she delivered her fifth child.

What tipped the scales for her?

"I really wanted to be able to protect [my family] as best as I could — both myself and my partner."

Vaccination rates vary

Health and elected officials have consistently asked N.W.T. residents to get vaccinated since Moderna vaccines became available in the territory just before New Year's Day, and they've been doing so with increasing urgency as the virus took hold in different communities.

"The most important thing you can do to keep our community safe is to get vaccinated," said Behchokǫ̀ Chief Clifford Daniels in a news conference one day after a containment order was issued in his community.

In the N.W.T., the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are available to people who are 12-years-old, or older.

Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC
Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC

The territory has among the highest vaccine uptake across the country, and the highest of all among those 12 and up who've had their first dose, according to CBC's vaccine tracker.

As of Sept. 14, 76 per cent of the eligible population aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated in the Northwest Territories, while 81 per cent are partially vaccinated, territorial statistics show.

But the numbers vary widely between communities.

In Yellowknife, Ndilo and Dettah, where there's a COVID-19 outbreak and additional public health measures in place to contain the spread of the disease, 80 per cent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.

In Behchokǫ̀, which is under a containment order, the number of COVID-19 cases has increased daily since Sept. 8, rising to 29 as of Tuesday. The latest numbers show that only 58 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated and 67 per cent are partially vaccinated.

N.W.T. COVID-19 Dashboard
N.W.T. COVID-19 Dashboard

In the neighbouring community of Whatì, also under a containment order, the number of cases has risen steadily since Sept. 10, when it reported its first case. As of Tuesday, it has 20 cases. Sixty-five per cent of people there are fully vaccinated and 75 per cent partially vaccinated.

In the Sahtu, which is emerging from a COVID-19 outbreak that, at its peak, grew to 249 cases, the rate of vaccination also varies. It ranges from a low of 34 per cent fully vaccinated and 69 per cent partially vaccinated in Fort Good Hope to a high of 75 per cent fully vaccinated and 87 per cent partially vaccinated in Tulita.

In the territory's other communities, the rate of fully vaccinated people ranges from 49 per cent (in Wrigley) to 88 per cent (in Ulukhaktuk).

One community in the territory has fully vaccinated its entire population: Kakisa, a designated authority in the South Slave Region, southeast of Fort Providence, which has a population of about 36.

Protecting the vulnerable

Deleary said that while not knowing what was in the vaccine was an issue for her, she said she had received other vaccines during her life and neither she nor her parents knew what was in those, either.

"And I'm fine," she said.

She added it's important that people do everything they can to protect their loved ones, as well as elders and children — "you know, the most vulnerable in our communities."

She said it's unfortunate one person has died from COVID-19 in the N.W.T., and she hopes it doesn't happen again.

"I'm really encouraging everybody who is able to get [a shot] to do so," said Deleary. "It's the best for all of us."

Stephanie Beaverho
Stephanie Beaverho

For Stephanie Beaverho of Whatì, the hesitation came from not knowing if the vaccine was safe and if it would affect her health in the long run.

"I just thought it was unnecessary," said Beaverho. It wasn't until there were cases reported in her community of about 500 on Sept. 10 that she changed her mind.

"I thought it would be safe for myself and for my kids [to get the shot]."

Recommending vaccines for everyone

She said she was nervous before she got vaccinated on Sept. 13, because she doesn't like getting shots. But she found it quick and easy.

When she decided to get the vaccine, she thought she would only get the first dose. But after talking to health workers, she decided she'll get a second dose, too.

Beaverho said she knows that having one dose doesn't mean you're fully vaccinated. You need the second dose for that.

Now she thinks everyone should get vaccinated.

"It's best for people that didn't get vaccinated to get their vaccine as soon as they can, because I feel like that's how it's going to control [the situation]."

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