Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller pauses before responding to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on Feb. 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Provinces should prioritize vaccinating Indigenous people against COVID-19: Miller

OTTAWA — The federal government is working with Indigenous leaders and the provincial and territorial health authorities to prepare mass COVID-19 immunization programs in First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, Indigenous Services Marc Miller says.

The effort is a race against “scary” variants of the virus that causes the illness, he said in a Wednesday news conference in Ottawa.

Miller said Ontario and British Columbia have already decided to prioritize Indigenous Peoples in vaccination and other provinces should follow, in keeping with the latest guidance from a national advisory committee on immunizations.

“It’s a remaining challenge that we’ll be working at the trilateral tables, in particular with provinces,” he said.

He said vaccinations have started in 400 Indigenous communities, with more than 83,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered as of Tuesday.

Miller said vaccines have been delivered to about 25 per cent of the adult population in First Nations, Inuit and territorial communities, a rate that is six times higher than that for the general population in Canada.

The new recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization prioritize racialized adults in groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic ahead of some older non-racialized people.

The committee recommended in its new guidance Monday that all adults in Indigenous communities receive COVID-19 shots in the second stage of the immunization campaign this spring.

Miller said following these recommendations presents some logistical challenges, including identifying racialized communities in urban centres.

“What the science is saying is get those vaccines to those people because they’re the vulnerable ones, they’re the most susceptible of getting COVID,” he said.

Vaccinating the most vulnerable people will eventually prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus variants.

“The more people that get COVID, the more variants are created,” he said.

Miller said the federal government is ready to support the provinces logistically to ensure the prioritized populations get vaccines quickly.

Miller said he’s very concerned about the possibility of COVID-19 variant outbreaks in First Nations.

“The variants are scary,” he said.

Several socio-economic factors, including crowded living conditions in First Nations communities, make new COVID-19 variants more threatening to these communities than others, Miller said.

“(It’s) very hard to isolate in a house when you have several generations, and a total of 15 or 20 people,” he said. “That’s the reality and number of communities that currently have outbreaks.”

“We’ve asked Indigenous communities to do things like repurposing gyms, repurposing schools, (to create) isolation tents.”

He said his department has been working with the Department of National Defence to deploy early warning systems and pre-position equipment in Indigenous communities.

“We move slower than COVID, and that’s just the reality,” he said.

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