First Nations leaders urge people to stay home, get vaccinated as coronavirus variants spread in Manitoba

Nearly three in every four people on Pimicikamak in northern Manitoba have already gotten their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, but with more infectious variants on the rise, the First Nation’s chief says he’s still worried about the illness spreading.

Though as the community prepares to set up another immunization clinic on Monday to start giving people their second shots, Chief David Monias said there’s a sense of relief on the horizon.

“That means that if COVID comes, then at least most of our people will be protected,” he said on Saturday.

Monias said he still wants to make sure people on Pimicikamak, also known as Cross Lake Cree Nation, don’t let up on following public health guidance like wearing masks and social distancing.

And while about 70 per cent of the First Nation has now been partially vaccinated, a large portion of the community’s population is under 18 and not yet able to get their shots.

That’s why Monias said it’s so important for adults to do their part on Pimicikamak, which is about 530 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

“It’s up to us … to protect the children,” he said. 

Variant cases double

Over a three-day period this week, more infectious coronavirus variants doubled among First Nations people in Manitoba, Dr. Marcia Anderson, public health lead for the Manitoba First Nations Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team, said at an online news conference on Friday.

From April 20 to April 23, on-reserve variant cases in Manitoba went from 14 to 26. Off-reserve, the number of variant strains identified in First Nations people went from 45 to 91, Anderson said.

“We’re really concerned, because we have talked a lot in the past about the higher secondary attack rate — so the higher likelihood that if a First Nations person is exposed to COVID-19, that they’re going to turn into a case,” she said.

Anderson asked people to avoid leaving their home communities unless it’s necessary, after the province on Friday announced possible exposures to the B117 variant first identified in the U.K. on two First Nations in Manitoba.

That was after someone went to church on one First Nation then drove north to another community.

As of Saturday, the B117 variant made up more than two-thirds of Manitoba’s known COVID-19 cases linked to the more infectious coronavirus strains. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

As of Saturday, that strain made up at least 858 of Manitoba’s known 1,309 variant cases, the province’s online dashboard that tracks the cases says. Another 427 infections were still listed as unspecified.

Anderson said some variant cases have also been linked to large gatherings and led to high numbers of close contacts.

“We need to all be doing our own part in slowing the spread of COVID-19, including the [variants], by not travelling like this,” she said.

First Nations people make up about 37 per cent of Manitoba’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and 52 per cent of the province’s ICU admissions linked to the illness, as of the latest numbers provided by the pandemic response team on Friday.

Melanie MacKinnon, who helps lead the First Nations pandemic response team, said medical teams that fly in to communities struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks have been getting strained.

“We do need to do everything in our individual and community collective power to really try to stop or slow the spread of COVID-19 and certainly the variants of concern,” MacKinnon said alongside Anderson at the virtual news conference.

“It’s really just a few more weeks, a couple more months until we can get more vaccines in arms, until we can slow the spread of these variants and hope to get ahead of it, as it really is a race between the vaccines and the variants.”

Pimicikamak Chief David Monias receives his second COVID-19 shot in this file photo. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

As Pimicikamak continues with its lockdown measures, including scheduled shopping hours to avoid crowds, Monias said more people on the First Nation are realizing how important it is to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“In order to get to some sort of normalcy, you need to get vaccinated,” he said. “It will take awhile, but I think it’s just a matter of actually being careful.”