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COVID-19 vaccine providing a shot of hope in Stoney Nakoda First Nation

“We’re trying to provide the right information which is from Health Canada as well as from Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services and tell them, ‘This vaccine is effective. It has been approved by Health Canada, and defiantly this is safe,’” said Stoney Health Services Executive Director Aaron Khan.
Bearspaw First Nation Councillor and Stoney elder Rod Hunter discusses getting the COVID-19 vaccine with Stoney Health Services nursing staff at Stoney Health Services. Submitted Photo

STONEY NAKODA— As the vaccine rollout continues across Alberta, Stoney Health Services is finding success in providing immunization to elders and other vulnerable Stoney Nakoda First Nation members.

Stoney Health Services executive director Aaron Khan said the delivery of the vaccine has been going well in the Nation and it has been a relief to see elders having access to immunization to the virus.

“Overall, we’re pretty happy with the outcome of the vaccine. I appreciate the support that we received from our elected leaders, like our Chief and Council, they were pretty supportive of all of what the health services are doing," Khan said. "They’ve supported community programs, been advocates and been role models for members— That counts a lot when you see elected leaders at the front."

Ushering out the vaccine becomes more important each day as variants of the virus spread in the province. Stoney Health Services is encouraging people to get the vaccine to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants, while hopefully allowing them to limit the experience of adverse infections.

Immunization clinics first began in January and were available to First Nation individuals over the age of 75. Distribution has ramped up both in the province and Canada and Indigenous people as young as 50 are now eligible for the vaccine.

Stoney Health Services is hoping to receive doses for those 50 and older by the end of March.

As part of the planning for immunization clinics, Stoney Health Services made arrangements to ensure elders could safely access the vaccine. A list of elders who are over the age of 65 living in Stoney Nakoda is available ensuring open communication was available for them with nurses.

“The nurses were able to cold call all the elders who have a phone number— They were able to talk to them and give them the opportunity to ask questions about the vaccine and how it was going work to just to help them make informed decisions before they come to the health centre to receive the vaccine,” Khan said.

There is a lot of incorrect information about vaccines spreading across social media and one of the major goals of Stoney Health Services has been to debunk the wrong information people come across.

“We’re trying to provide the right information which is from Health Canada as well as from Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services and tell them, ‘This vaccine is effective. It has been approved by Health Canada, and definitely this is safe,’” Khan said. 

When the rollout first began, there was an initial hesitancy from some Nation members, but they saw a good turnout in the first round of clinics for residents 65 years or older.

People are becoming more eager to receive the vaccine and with time, Khan said, the vaccine is gaining credibility because Nation members have been able to see others receive the shot and experience no adverse side effects.

“The trust is now there, they see that a lot of people are getting the vaccine provincially and nationally and locally in our own community and there are no major side effects to it,” Khan said. “We are seeing the confidence and we are pre-booking all those who are eligible.”

It was imperative to begin immunization in Stoney Nakoda as soon as possible because of the dangers COVID-19 posed not only in the Nation but in the province, country and world, he said.

The Stoney Nakoda First Nation experienced a major outbreak of COVID-19 in December which they are on the tail end of. During this time the Nation lost both knowledge keepers and elders.

“Our people are more vulnerable in terms of getting the vaccine so it was an important step. We wanted them to get the vaccine as soon as possible,” Khan said.

Major factors that adversely effected the health of Nation members included access to health care services, housing, employment and transportation.

“When you have a situation where you have many people living in a small house the risk of infection is very high. It can spread very quickly if one person gets it,” Khan said. 

Health Canada reported that as of March 19, 25,752 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been identified on First Nation reserves and 269 Nation members had died. In Alberta 6,954 cases of COVID-19 have been reported on First Nation Reserves.

Overall, the rate of reported cases of COVID-19 in First Nation people living on a reserve is 183 per cent higher than the rate for the general Canadian population. The rate of fatality is about 44 per cent case high in comparison to the general Canadian population.

About 94 per cent of people who tested positive for COVID-19 on a First Nation have recovered.

“The data proves they are more vulnerable in terms of the statistics,” Khan said.

Over the last four years, Stoney Health Services has been building its capacity and services offered in terms of health care in the Nation. This has ensured more services are available to residents close to home, but at times many will have to go off-reserve for MRIs, ultrasounds, dialysis and surgeries.

“We have seen more and more people accessing services now because we do have all these programs available,” Khan said. “We are growing each and every day.”

These programs have proven to be especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic because it helps minimize the risk of exposure by helping residents stay in Stoney Nakoda First Nation.

“It’s working well and we are seeing more and more people are getting it [vaccines] now."

As of Sunday (March 21) there were 13 active cases of COVID-19 in Stoney Nakoda First Nation. There have been 461 active cases in total, and six Nation members have died.

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