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Concerns mount over new variants as vaccine rollout continues

BY Ben Powless Mar 12, 2021

Covid-19 case numbers are rapidly declining across Quebec, though there is renewed worry as new variants are beginning to spread across the country, which the Cree Health Board (CHB) called “extremely contagious.”

So far, these variants have been identified in five regions, including Abitibi-Témiscamingue. Health Canada officials noted that 1,257 cases of the UK variant had been detected, along with 99 from South Africa and three from Brazil.

Some experts warn that the variants seen in Brazil may be able to re-infect people who have recovered from a previous Covid-19 infection, while it is still unknown how the vaccines may affect the new variants. Quebec health authorities said they expect variants to become the dominant strain by late March or early April. 

That news comes as 9,734 people have received their first dose of the vaccine in Eeyou Istchee, representing over 72% of the eligible population. That number includes 2,715 people in Chisasibi, 2,013 in Mistissini and 1,158 in Waskaganish. 

The CHB was pushing people to get vaccinated in early March so that as many as possible receive their first dose before the shipment of second doses arrives in late March or early April. Some people have already their second shot to prevent doses from going to waste.

CHB Information Officer Corinne Smith said the Moderna vaccine comes in vials that contain 10 doses which can’t be stored long after opening. While this has led to some vials spoiling, the CHB has made leftover doses available to Elders on a priority list to ensure they did not go to waste.

In some communities, they have started to schedule 10 patients to receive the vaccine in a single day to prevent any extra doses. 

The CHB is planning to vaccinate Cree outside the region, including post-secondary students and Cree School Board (CSB) employees, as well as long-term patients in Montreal, with more information to come soon.

In Mistissini, the local clinic teamed up with the fire department to offer a drive-through vaccination, according to Marie-Josée Morin, the community’s vaccination lead. People stayed in their car to receive the vaccination, then waited 15 minutes to ensure there were no adverse reactions. 

“It worked really well,” Morin said. “We’re getting stronger and working together to make it happen, and it works.” She said they were able to get more people to come in this way.

Morin said they would resume the practice in the third or fourth week of March. Details will be provided online, in posters, and on local radio. 

In Montreal, there were two new Covid-19 cases reported among Cree members who had travelled there for medical appointments in January. The CHB reported that the individuals were tested before returning, and were asymptomatic but isolating in Montreal, with no known contacts in Eeyou Istchee. This brings the total number of cases to 119. 

Ouje-Bougoumou and Mistissini were moved into Phase 3 of deconfinement, allowing for outdoor gatherings of 75 people or 10 households and indoor gatherings of 25 or three households.

The rest of the Cree communities moved back into Phase 4 of deconfinement, allowing for outdoor gatherings of 150 and indoor gatherings of 50 people. 

Travel between Eeyou Istchee and Region 10 (Nord-du-Québec) and Region 17 (Nunavik) was still considered safe. However, travel to all other regions of Quebec and Ontario was still considered at-risk, requiring a14-day quarantine upon return. 

The CSB announced that most schools had received laptop loans for Secondary 4 and 5 students and are distributing laptops to all secondary-level students. 

Mistissini students were scheduled to be able to return to full-time in-class instruction by March 8. All adult educational programs also resumed, while regional programs at Sabtuan Regional Vocational Training Centre were to resume March 10. 

The CSB said that it was planning for spring break for post-secondary students and for Goose Break “with public health considerations at the forefront of decision-making.” 

The United States authorized a third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. Health Canada approved a two-dose vaccine from AstraZeneca and Oxford University, making it the third vaccine to be authorized in Canada. 

Quebec was reporting under 600 daily new cases, a low not seen since last September. Overall, Canada’s total confirmed cases rose over 870,000, with 22,000 deaths, and just under two million receiving the vaccine.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.