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UM institute leads ‘momentous’ vaccine rollout to First Nations at request of federal government

March 12, 2021 — 

In a landmark acknowledgment of the growing health-care autonomy of Indigenous Peoples, the federal government has given an Indigenous health institute at the University of Manitoba responsibility for leading the COVID-19 vaccination project in all 63 Manitoba First Nations.

“We were asked to lead the vaccine rollout because of our strong collaborative relationships with First Nations and our expertise at delivering trusted, culturally safe care in our communities,” said Melanie MacKinnon, a Cree nurse who leads Ongomiizwin, the Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing in the UM Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, and is executive director of its Health Services branch.   

“Our goal is to get 100,000 first and second doses of the Moderna vaccine into 50,000 arms in 100 days. I’m the lead of the operation, and my deputy is a federal government representative. So we’re not doing this instead of the federal government, we’re doing it with them.”

The target of immunizing 50,000 adults includes residents of 21 Northern communities that are adjacent to First Nations.

Elders in all 63 First Nations have already been vaccinated, MacKinnon noted, so the project will serve ages 18 to 60 or 70, depending on the age span already immunized.

The massive rollout of health-care personnel, supplies and equipment starts March 15 and is scheduled for completion by July 15. A workforce of about 350 vaccinators will drive or fly to First Nations to ensure that every community has access to the vaccine.

“The University of Manitoba is the only university in Canada to be recognized as having the Indigenous-led clinical operations and public health expertise to direct a project on this scale,” said Dr. Brian Postl, dean of the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. “This is a tribute to Ongomiizwin, which is at the forefront of building a new model that empowers Indigenous people to have greater authority over their own health care.”

Ongomiizwin – Health Services, formerly known as the UM northern medical unit, has a 52-year track record of serving communities in northern Manitoba and Nunavut. During the pandemic, it has coordinated the Rapid Response health-care teams that have been deployed more than 60 times by the Manitoba First Nations Pandemic Response Coordination Team (MFNPRCT) to manage outbreaks of COVID-19.

“During the COVID response, First Nations have collectively demonstrated a high degree of competence in health leadership and delivery,” MacKinnon said.

Dr. Marcia Anderson, a Cree-Anishinaabe physician, is vice-dean, Indigenous health of the Rady Faculty, executive director of Indigenous academic affairs for Ongomiizwin, and public health lead for MFNPRCT.

“Through collaboration between First Nations communities and organizations, the federal and provincial governments and the Rady Faculty, we have moved toward the collective vision of First Nations self-determination in health care,” Anderson said. “We look forward to seeing how this current approach, where all partners are bringing their best efforts to meet shared goals, will be translated into the broader health systems transformation in Manitoba.”

Ongomiizwin put out a call to recruit 350 health-care providers – including UM faculty and students in the health sciences – who are willing to commit to at least 10 days of paid work on the vaccination project.

“The response has been incredible,” MacKinnon said. “We surpassed our goal in less than a week. It’s awe-inspiring that so many faculty members, students and health professionals want to be part of this momentous pandemic response.”

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) said: “We fully support this work being done to ensure the safety and well-being of First Nation citizens. We’re pleased to hear of the continued prioritization of First Nation citizens in this next phase of the vaccine rollout. This is a further testament to what can be achieved when all levels work together in unison for the good of all Manitobans.”

The vaccine rollout is being implemented in partnership with the AMC, Southern Chiefs Organization and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak/Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin.

Other organizations supporting the project include the federal government’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Shared Health (Manitoba), the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Red Cross.

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