VANCOUVER — Doses of COVID-19 vaccine are expected to reach close to 60 First Nations in British Columbia by the end of next week.
Several Indigenous communities have seen significant increases in COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks, said Dr. Shannon McDonald, the acting chief medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority.
Cases on reserves previously represented a quarter of the more than 2,500 reported cases among Indigenous people in B.C., but that's risen to 40 per cent, she said at a news conference on Wednesday.
She said 600 infections are active and 32 people have died.
The delivery of vaccine is being prioritized based on remoteness and whether a community has experienced a cluster or deaths, she said.
B.C. has allocated 25,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to First Nations for distribution by the end of February and 19 have received doses so far.
First Nations in B.C. are home to about 55,000 people and McDonald said she expects anyone who wants to be vaccinated against COVID-19 will receive their shots as more doses become available.
But she said the First Nations Health Authority, like others in B.C., has experienced challenges getting enough vaccine.
"We have shortages when we compare our priority lists to what's been made available at this point from the province or through our partnership with regional health authorities, but we're not alone in that."
The First Nations Health Authority is not responsible for delivering vaccine to Indigenous people living outside their home communities, said McDonald, explaining they would be served by regional health authorities.
"We would not be directly providing those vaccines, but we may be participating in partnerships to make sure that the distribution is done in a culturally safe and accessible way," she said.
The authority participated in provincial decision-making about who should be first in line for vaccination, she said, including pushing to expand the age range for Indigenous elders living off reserves.
"The original identification of individuals, elders, over the age of 80, was a bit problematic for our populations because there aren't that many Indigenous people over the age of 80."
The province has since expanded the age range for priority recipients to include Indigenous people over the age of 65.
McDonald also addressed reports of racism levelled against Indigenous people as several communities fight to contain rising cases.
"The racism has always been there. And sometimes it simmers very close to the surface, but isn't as evident," she said.
"The fear and anxiety that people may feel about COVID can trigger First Nations people being targeted."
Cowichan Tribes general manager Derek Thompson said this week reports of racism increased after the Vancouver Island First Nation publicly disclosed a cluster of COVID-19 cases earlier this month.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has voiced his support for the community, condemning comments posted online that urged businesses in the area not to serve Indigenous customers.
B.C.'s top doctor weighed in during a news briefing on Thursday, saying the pandemic has illuminated long-standing societal inequities.
"The health challenges of this virus are difficult enough without also having to face stigma and discrimination from those around us," she said, while encouraging people to speak out against racism.
Health officials began administering 600 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Cowichan elders Wednesday, while a stay-at-home order is ongoing.
Canim Lake Band near 100 Mile House is also fighting an outbreak with dozens of positive cases.
A joint news release from the Cariboo Regional District, District of 100 Mile House and Canim Lake Band says residents of the First Nation have been prioritized to start receiving vaccine this week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press