Indigenous clinics lead off reserve vaccine efforts as Ontario develops plan

TORONTO — Crystal Bell of the Matawa Health Co-operative recalls seeing elders relax and chat with each other after receiving their first COVID-19 vaccines earlier this month.

“It was almost like their little social gathering,” the director of clinical and nursing services at MHC said in an interview. “They were really thankful.”

Bell and her team of about 20 people have run a handful of vaccinations clinics for members of nine Matawa First Nations who live in Thunder Bay, Ont., where a recent surge in COVID-19 cases has plunged the city back into lockdown.

The first clinic opened in March after the organization raised concerns with the local public health unit that many of the new cases were Matawa members.

Bell said interest has been strong, with almost 500 people vaccinated by Monday, though there’s still a long way to go.

“According to statistics, we have well over 4,000 people living off reserve,” she said. “Doing the math, we need quite a bit.”

The Matawa clinics, which leverage community connections and offer translation and transportation services, are the kind of Indigenous-led vaccination effort that advocates and health-care workers are calling for more of to ensure First Nations, Metis and Inuit living in Ontario cities are vaccinated as swiftly as possible.

Some fear Indigenous people living in urban centres, who are prioritized under the first phase of Ontario’s vaccination plan, have fallen through the cracks.

NDP legislator Sol Mamakwa, who is Indigenous, raised the issue in the provincial legislature last week, only to be accused by Premier Doug Ford of “jumping the line” for a COVID-19 shot.

Ford later apologized to Mamakwa, but the New Democrat said the premier’s remarks did not instill confidence in the province’s plan to vaccinate Indigenous people living off reserve.

“That means they have no plan,” he said in an interview.

Access to health-care, including vaccinations, often becomes “jurisdictional ping-pong” for Indigenous people living off reserves, Mamakwa said, and working with Indigenous-led organizations is important to making sure widespread inoculations happen.

Dr. Janet Smylie, a Canada research chair in Advancing Generative Health Services for Indigenous Populations, has been working for months on implementing vaccine access for First Nations, Inuit and Metis living Toronto.

She said planning efforts to vaccinate people in remote First Nations communities haven’t been matched for Indigenous people in cities, who have experienced poor outcomes during the pandemic despite living closer to health services.

“I think the problem was there wasn’t the political will to actually do it,” said Smylie, who is also a family physician.

She said Indigenous-specific call centres and vaccination dates would help, as well as having Indigenous leaders in control of distribution.

“We’re kind of out of time in Toronto, but hopefully we can work hard together on these things over the next couple of weeks,” she said.

Joe Hester, executive director of Anishnawbe Health Toronto, said he hopes increases in vaccine supply will help his team reach more people through mobile units and larger clinics.

Anishnawbe Health has been running weekly clinics at its Gerrard Street location for people aged 55 and older and those with chronic illnesses.

About 1,500 vaccinations had been completed as of last Friday, Hester said.

The centre works to create a comfortable setting for people receiving their shots, he said, with traditional songs, smudging and refreshments for those in line.

“We try to create that environment that is familiar to them,” he said.

But Hester said it is not possible for his centre to vaccinate all Indigenous people living in Toronto.

Anishnawbe Health has been receiving Pfizer vaccines that require cold storage, and Hester said there are discussions with the public health unit about their preference for portable shots that would allow staff to reach people who are homebound, homeless or in congregate living settings.

“We have two vehicles just ready to do that,” he said.

A spokesman for the minister of Indigenous affairs said the province is developing a vaccination plan for off-reserve Indigenous people, and mobile units are something they’re looking into.

The head of Ontario’s vaccine task force directed top health officials last month to offer shots to “all Indigenous adults” after long-term care residents, staff and other top-priority groups are vaccinated.

Some health units are running Indigenous-specific clinics in partnership with community groups, including those in Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Ottawa and Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said discussions are underway with government officials at all levels about expected supply increases that should speed up the rollout.

He noted that many NAN members moved to cities like Thunder Bay, Timmins and Dryden for health reasons and are vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

“We want to make sure that this happens pretty quickly,” he said.

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