The news lately has been full of smiling faces and happy communities as the first slate of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines reached remote and isolated First Nations recently.
As of Jan. 12, just over 4,100 vaccines had been administered in 19 remote First Nations communities in BC. Clinics have been continuing daily and by the end of the month, more than 60 First Nations communities will have had them.
“We're very excited as to the uptake, where people have agreed to accept the vaccine and have encouraged each other to do that," said Dr. Shannon McDonald, Acting Chief Medical Officer for the First Nations Health Authority.
Despite the fact vaccines are arriving in First Nations communities, Dr. McDonald is urging individuals not to let down their guard against the COVID-19 virus.
“Having the vaccine is a big tool in our toolkit, but it isn't the only asset we have," she said. “We have to continue to do the things that we've been encouraged to do to stay safe. To avoid gatherings, to hang out in your family bubble, to wash your hands, to wear a mask when you're in public. All of those things are absolutely necessary now and for the next while."
Although the vaccines have been a silver lining in the dark cloud that has been COVID-19 for the past year, there remains an ongoing danger to public health and safety. The provincial government recently extended public health orders restricting gatherings, non-essential travel, and mandating that masks be used in public spaces. These orders are now in place until at least Feb. 5.
Dr. McDonald said the FNHA has noted a post-holiday rise in COVID-19 infections, particularly in First Nations communities. Why the increase? Dr. McDonald says it's likely due to COVID fatigue, as people miss their families, friends, and gatherings, such as not being able to get together over Christmas.
“That was hard. It was really hard. In times of sadness, like after there's been a passing in the family, or in times of celebration, we want to be together. It's our way as humans, as First Nations people, to do that. So I understand the pressure. But I also understand that the more often we do this we're going to see a rise in cases."
There have been more than 2,000 positive cases of COVID-19 among First Nations people in BC since the beginning of the pandemic a year ago, with more than 600 active cases now. Roughly 35 per cent of those are individuals who live on reserve.
Until 75 per cent of the general population has been vaccinated, there is still a risk to communities. As well, Dr. McDonald said that medical experts don't know yet whether those who have been vaccinated can still be carriers of the virus and pass it along to people not yet immunized. Even when communities do receive vaccines, Dr. McDonald warns it may be a long time before we ever get back to what we might consider “normal."
“I don't know if we'll ever go back to where we were before this. We have all been impacted by this in the last year and learned different ways of living and being. Even immediately after you get the vaccine it'll take seven to 10 days before your body has developed enough immunity to protect you against COVID. So especially during that period it's very important to continue with all the public health measures that we know."
Some people have been worried about news of a new COVID-19 strain coming from the United Kingdom and South Africa. Dr. McDonald says the good news is that the existing COVID-19 vaccines are effective on the new strains, and that, if needed, scientists may be able to adapt the vaccines to any other new strains. This would be similar to the way that we routinely change our Influenza vaccines slightly each year to ensure protection against new strains.
“There may be a time that we have to do that for COVID as well, but that hasn't occurred yet."
Most importantly, Dr. McDonald says, we can't get complacent and let down our guard just because we know the vaccines are coming. We have to continue to do the things that have been effective.
“Go outside. It's important to get exercise, eat well, and do all the things that keep us healthy. Call the people you love, have a good conversation. Have a Skype call. Do other things that you know make you happy. Because wellness is more than just 'I don't have COVID.' It's important to remember the blessings we have and have gratitude for them."
FAQs on the COVID-19 vaccine are updated as new information becomes available. Please also visit our COVID-19 web portal at fnha.ca/coronavirus for the latest updates.