All Indigenous adults, including First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, are now eligible to get the coronavirus vaccine, Manitoba announced Monday.
The eligibility expansion applies to vaccinations at supersites and pop-up clinics, which are stocked with either Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.
Elibility for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, which is available through medical clinics and pharmacies, remains at 40 and up for all Manitobans, and 30 to 39 for people with certain health conditions.
Up until now, age eligibility for First Nations has been set at 20 years younger than the general population’s eligibility, which is currently 50 and older for supersites and pop-up clinics, and First Nations eligibility did not apply to Métis or Inuit people.
“We have seen consistently that First Nations people have made up 50 to 60 per cent of all COVID-19 admissions to intensive care units,” said Dr. Marcia Anderson, public health lead for the First Nations Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team.
“We’re also seeing consistently higher numbers of off-reserve First Nations people than on-reserve people in hospitalizations and ICUs and, unfortunately, more fatal outcomes.”
As of Friday, there had been 114 deaths among First Nations people living off reserve and 55 deaths of people living on reserve. There are also 231 cases linked to more contagious coronavirus variants in First Nations people living off reserve, compared to 45 on reserve.
“We have consistently seen severe outcomes occurring in younger ages among First Nations people,” Anderson said.
Early in the vaccine rollout, a portion of the province’s doses were set aside for distribution to First Nations communities.
As of April 29, 52,000 doses of vaccine had been administered to First Nations people in Manitoba, with 39 per cent of the First Nations population receiving at least one dose, but a much smaller proportion of those who have been vaccinated live off reserve.
The provincial government’s online dashboard says 51 per cent of on-reserve First Nations people have received at least one dose, compared to 22 per cent of the off-reserve First Nations population.
Last week, the province started launching vaccine clinics targeting urban Indigenous populations, as well as homeless people, in cities across Manitoba.
“At this time, including Métis and Inuit people in this eligibility acknowledges the response to the impacts of colonization on all Indigenous people in Canada,” Anderson said.
“The urban Indigenous clinics, which are used to operating in status-blind ways, will be able to provide high-quality culture-based equitable services to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.”
Anyone who self-identifies as First Nations, Métis or Inuit will be able to get a vaccine without being asked to provide further proof, Anderson said. In February, when the province began its rollout of the vaccine to the general population, Anderson had said they may at some point ask for some form of proof to prevent people falsely claiming to be Indigenous in order to get the vaccine.
“Fortunately over time and with what we’ve seen, that’s become less necessary,” she said Monday.
The province offers vaccine booking services in more than 100 languages, including First Nations languages.
“This is an important change and is being made to increase accessibility to the vaccine,” Anderson said.
All urban Indigenous clinics have times set aside for both appointments and walk-ins. On Monday and Tuesday, both vaccine clinics in Winnipeg — located at the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre (Win Gardner Place, 363 McGregor Ave.) and the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre (181 Higgins Ave.) — are open exclusively for walk-ins, Anderson said.
Métis people pleased, but some concerns remain
Jacqueline Pelland, 28, was “elated” to learn through a friend that she was now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. She immediately went online to book her appointment and is now slated to get her first dose on May 18.
Pelland is feeling a lot of different emotions about being able to get vaccinated, she said. As a law student, she has seen the toll of the pandemic on classmates and their families, let alone the impact on other Manitobans and people around the world.
“It has been really distressing, frankly,” she said. “A lot of times I have wondered when this might come to an end and whether there’s going to be a solution.
“To know that there’s at least some sort of step that we can take outside of social isolation … and the mental health repercussions, it feels really good to have this option now.”
Expanding the eligibility criteria to Métis people is significant because it recognizes that the population has a higher rate of chronic illnesses — such as high blood pressure and diabetes — and that Métis people die at a younger age than the average Manitoban, said Frances Chartrand, health minister of the Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF).
But there remain a couple of concerns for the MMF, primarily how officials will identify who is Métis and who isn’t, because the new criteria does not require someone to have documentation.
“My concern is that anybody off the street can say they’re Métis,” said Chartrand.
MMF president David Chartrand also wonders where Métis people can get vaccinated. If those living in rural Manitoba have to travel to Winnipeg, that could create problems when it comes to transportation, for example, he said.