81% of adults living on Garden Hill First Nation receive 1st dose of COVID-19 vaccine

A remote First Nation in northern Manitoba is on its way to herd immunity following an incredibly successful COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

Kistiganwacheeng, also known as Garden Hill First Nation, has immunized 81 per cent of its adult residents, says health director Oberon Munroe.

“We had initial resistance to getting people taking the vaccine,” said Munroe.

“We did a lot of PR work. We do have a local TV and radio in our community. We try to push as much information as we can to the general [public].”

Garden Hill First Nation experienced a significant COVID-19 outbreak last January that required military aid. The fly-in community, located 475 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, was put under lockdown and band leadership prohibited non-essential travel. 

Only essential workers, such as medical professionals and those critical to the community infrastructure and people who needed to fly to Winnipeg for medical reasons, were allowed to travel, said Munroe.

Part of the outbreak response was vaccination, so that the community could start building immunity. A vaccination clinic was set up in the local school’s gym and the initial Moderna doses received from the federal government were shot into the arms of the First Nation’s elders, said Munroe.

Most of the elders wanted to receive the immunization in order to protect themselves, he said. 

Once seniors were taken care of, the community expanded its vaccination efforts to all residents 18 or older.

Nearly 2,600 people live in Garden Hill First Nation, according to 2016 census data. Community officials gathered that roughly 1,700 residents on-reserve are at least 18 years old, and there are another 100 people who live about a kilometre from the community in that age range, said Munroe.

To ensure public health protocols, such as physical distancing, were met, the immunization clinic was moved to the community arena.

A call-in service was also established to gather personal information ahead of a person’s appointment, to make administering the vaccine at the clinic more efficient, said Munroe.

When Garden Hill First Nation expanded its vaccination efforts to all adults, it experienced a lull in immunizations and set out to build public trust in the product. (Submitted by Dino Flett)

But immunization lulled.

“Our numbers were a little slow and it started to pick up along the way,” said Munroe.

Officials had to build public trust in the vaccine. They launched a public education campaign on the local media platforms, and asked those who did get vaccinated to encourage others to do the same.

Eventually, more people started booking to receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“You really need to keep pushing for the right information going, instead of listening to the negative social media that goes around,” he said.

“We made sure we had the right information going to the community.”

The vaccine plan aimed to immunize about 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the population on-reserve, which is the benchmark for herd immunity to take hold.

There have now been about 1,470 residents over the age of 18 — 81 per cent of that population — who have received the first dose of the vaccine, said Munroe.

As of Tuesday, there are 349 known active COVID-19 cases in the Island Lake region — of which Garden Hill is a part — provincial data shows. 

That’s down from nearly 700 active cases nearly three months ago.

Munroe acknowledges that COVID-19 cases are getting better, but says officials are still preaching for people living on the First Nation to limit their travel and continue following public health orders.

Kistiganwacheeng health director Oberon Munroe talks to CBC’s Janet Stewart about the success his community, also known as Garden Hill First Nation, has had in getting people to take the COVID-19 vaccine. 4:33

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