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Eeyou Istchee approaches goal for initial vaccinations

BY Ben Powless Feb 12, 2021

A major outbreak across a number of Cree communities seemed nearly under control in recent days, as vaccine rollouts continued.

The outbreak, which began in Mistissini and Ouje-Bougoumou and spread to other communities, eventually saw 90 confirmed cases, as well as another case outside Eeyou Istchee. The Cree Health Board (CHB) reported only eight cases still active at press time, including two hospitalized. 

The CHB confirmed one death from the virus – Mistissini Elder Joseph Shecapio passed away January 20 in a Chicoutimi hospital from complications due to Covid-19. 

The CHB reported that 57 of those cases were in Mistissini and 29 in Ouje-Bougoumou, with the remaining four from undisclosed locations for reasons of privacy. That brought the total of confirmed cases across Eeyou Istchee to 114 since the pandemic began, with three deaths.

“We have people despite their best efforts that are catching Covid-19,” CNG Corporate Secretary Paul John Murdoch told the CNG Board Council meeting January 26. “It doesn’t make sense to blame them. It’s hitting us quite hard. We have to be careful about judging or stigmatizing people who have Covid-19.”

Meanwhile the vaccination program has successfully managed to inoculate 69% of eligible adults, with over 9,103 people having received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine. That figure includes 1,073 people in Waskaganish, 1,908 in Mistissini, and 2,604 in Chisasibi. Grand Chief Abel Bosum has indicated a goal of seeing at least 80% of eligible adults vaccinated. 

Vaccinations were being conducted at community clinics and some by appointment. Further information is available at creehealth.org/covid

Laura Bearskin of the Nishiiyuu Miyupimaatisiiun Department urged individuals to seek guidance from Elders, traditional healers and healthcare providers about the vaccine. 

“Our Elders and traditional healers teach us that faith in the medicines we use is important, both traditional and western, and the effectiveness of the medicines can only become stronger with prayer and our faith in the medicine. Achieving Miyupimaatisiiun asks that we find balance in the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of ourselves,” Bearskin stated.

Mistissini and Ouje-Bougoumou remain in Phase 1 of deconfinement, with prohibitions on any outdoor or indoor visits between households. Public buildings are open by appointment, and access to and from communities is for essential services only. The communities will be eligible to move forward with deconfinement only after two weeks without a new case. 

Chisasibi, Eastmain, Nemaska, Waskaganish, Waswanipi, Wemindji and Whapmagoostui were moved to Phase 2 of deconfinement, allowing outdoor and indoor gatherings of up to two households, with public offices open as usual. Communities will be eligible to move to Phase 3 potentially within the week.

The Cree School Board reported that the return to school for all communities in scenario B was “going well,” with the school board working with the CHB to determine what will happen in Mistissini, Whapmagoostui and Ouje-Bougoumou for February 8. In Mistissini, school-age daycare was only open for essential workers.

The Departments of School Operations and Information & Technologies were deploying laptop loans for Secondary 4/5 students, starting in the communities of Mistissini, Ouje-Bougoumou and Waswanipi. For communities in Phase 1, Sabtuan’s general education and vocational training programs were still online, while for communities in Phase 2, those programs were resumed, with General Education students back in the classroom with increased health measures. 

Dr. Marie-Jo Ouimet, Public Health Physician with the CHB, told the CNG Board Council meeting that despite problems with the Pfizer vaccine distribution, the health board was hopeful that the second shipment would not be delayed. She acknowledged that the Moderna vaccine would not be available to Cree beneficiaries living in Abitibi. Murdoch added that the CHB was working with leadership to find vaccination solutions for post-secondary students living in the south.

The only areas considered safe for travel were Region 10 (Nord-du-Québec), Region 17 (Nunavik) and Region 18 (Eeyou Istchee). In Region 10, Radisson, Matagami, Lebel-Sur-Quebillon, Chapais and Chibougamau were not considered at risk. Non-essential travel between communities was still prohibited for at least a week until contact tracing could be completed. 

There were 31 active cases reported in Region 8 (Abitibi-Témiscamingue), zero active cases in Region 10, and 275 active cases in Region 2 (Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean).

Overall, cases were in decline across Quebec, as case numbers declined by more than half of where they were at the beginning of January to levels last seen in early November. Hospitalizations also decreased. Nationally, cases were down 20% compared to the previous week.

As a result, Premier François Legault announced that Quebec businesses, museums and hairdressers are permitted to reopen February 8, though the curfew would remain in place. However, Regions 2, 8 and 10, among others, would return to the Orange Zone, with curfews moving to 9:30 pm and allowing for restaurants, gyms and indoor sports to open again. 

The Quebec government stated a goal of having all First Nations communities in Quebec to receive their first dose of vaccine by the end of March, unless there were further vaccine supply issues. 

Across Canada, over 786,000 total cases were reported, as deaths topped 20,000. Nearly one million people had received at least one vaccine dose, with over 126,000 people fully vaccinated. Worldwide, there were over 86 million cases reported, and 1.8 million deaths.

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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.