The last time Grand Chief Abel Bosum remembers receiving a vaccine was when he attended residential school, which may have contributed to a distaste for inoculations. Still, he says he needed to have faith in the health system while protecting family members, so he and his wife signed up to get the Covid-19 vaccine as soon as it was available.
“This time was different. When I was young, I cried, but this time, I didn’t,” Bosum said with a laugh.
It’s one of many such decisions that Cree Nation leaders have had to make over the course of nearly a year responding to an unprecedented health crisis that has transformed the very way the Cree Nation Government (CNG) works.
The plan started with a distribution exercise in Mistissini to see whether the vaccination sites would work and whether people would come out, which succeeded on both counts. From there, the vaccine was distributed to every community, and vaccinations have now reached nearly 70% of the eligible population.
“We had a very successful outreach, many people came out when it reached their community,” Bosum said.
The target is to inoculate 80% of the Cree Nation’s members. So far, Bosum says, the biggest challenge are younger people, who are the least likely to be vaccinated. The CNG is working with the Cree Health Board (CHB) and the Cree Nation Youth Council to figure out the best way to reach youth, which, if successful, could see vaccination rates go beyond even 80%.
Bosum said that though the vaccination is a personal decision, there were many reasons for everyone to get the vaccine. He said that it would help protect vulnerable family members, allow communities to leave deconfinement sooner, and protect the delicate Cree Nation healthcare system – which was nearly overwhelmed by the recent outbreak. It would also demonstrate to governments that the Cree Nation is taking this issue seriously. No one in Eeyou Istchee, Bosum emphasized, has reported any serious side effects.
The recent outbreak, which started in Mistissini and Ouje-Bougoumou, saw one case quickly grow to an 80-person outbreak. This put a lot of stress on the contact-tracing team, which tracked down over 1,000 people, according to Bosum.
“Our number-one priority is keeping our people and our communities safe. We need to do whatever we can to do that. As we comply and protect ourselves, we’ll find ways to deconfine our communities even if the province has its own lockdowns,” Bosum said.
Early on, it was decided that the CHB would take the lead on Covid-related issues. Bosum said the group also gets reports from the Eeyou Eenou Police Force about what is happening in each community, as well as from the Cree School Board (CSB) about the status of schools and students studying down south.
Now that the vaccine rollout is underway, protocols and information are shared during weekly leadership calls with the chiefs, CNG directors, public health departments, and with doctors and nurses responsible for assessing the state of the pandemic.
“We’re always looking for new ideas or solutions that are important,” Bosum added.
That information is then transmitted back to community members, which is done through official announcements on the websites for the CNG, the CHB, and the CSB, so that community members can get the information directly and not just through social media.
The vaccination rollout was a significant test of the Cree Nation’s ability to distribute vaccines to communities and on to individuals, something that much of the country is still struggling with.
“The first thing we did was work with the health board to determine what we need for the rollout of the first dose as well as the second dose,” said Bosum. “We worked with communities to prepare for the vaccine program, including local clinics and local public health officers responsible for coordinating vaccination sites. This plan has been very effective.”
Mental health issues for community members and particularly youth were identified by Cree leadership as the next serious issue. Bosum said they will be coming out with a mental health strategy in collaboration with communities and the Cree Nation’s organizations.
“One of our advantages is we’re still connected to the land, so communities have been very flexible to allow people to go out onto the land and destress the anxiety,” Bosum added. “We’re asking people to be patient.”