Rady faculty’s Indigenous Health Institute to deliver vaccines to First Nations

Last month, the federal government enlisted the help of the Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing at the University of Manitoba’s Rady faculty of health sciences in the vaccine rollout for Manitoba’s First Nations communities.

In early March, the federal government requested that Ongomiizwin, the Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing at the Rady faculty, lead the rollout of the vaccine in Manitoba’s 63 First Nations communities.

“Throughout the course of the pandemic, Ongomiizwin [and the] Rady faculty of health sciences have been working with the First Nations [COVID-19] pandemic response co-ordination team,” said Melanie MacKinnon, a Cree nurse who serves as leader of Ongomiizwin and as executive director of Indigenous Health Services at U of M.

MacKinnon said Ongomiizwin had spent the past year building connections “between the federal and provincial governments to ensure that First Nation communities didn’t fall through any program, service or resource gaps in the response to COVID-19.”

In collaboration with the federal government, Ongomiizwin’s goal is to deliver both doses of the Moderna vaccine to 50,000 people in 100 days, including 21 northern communities that are near the First Nations by July 15.

MacKinnon explained that in northern and rural communities which face “greater logistical challenges” due to their geography or limited health-care staff and resources, “Ongomiizwin will play a role in […] providing clinical experts and vaccinators to enhance the local and partner health teams.”

“In many of these communities, we are the physician or nurse specialist provider and a trusted clinical partner,” she said.

“In the northern or the nursing station context, the local primary care nurses have other responsibilities in public health as well as primary care and responding to [emergency] care.”

Working with the local health workforce in northern communities allows faster vaccination in higher volumes “so that we don’t take time and resources away from everyday health care needs,” she continued.

The Rady faculty assisted in rolling out the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine given to Manitobans back in December 2020. The faculty has been actively engaged in the fight against COVID-19, from sourcing and supplying equipment for testing to, as of December 2020, having two new potential vaccines under development.

The faculty will also be conducting two studies to contribute to research on COVID-19 with funding assistance from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The studies will focus on the efficacy of home monitoring technology in COVID-19 patients with advanced chronic kidney disease and the effects of the pandemic on families with immunocompromised children.

MacKinnon said it became obvious to both the provincial and federal government that “for [the] vaccine rollout, First Nations needed to continue […] in a leadership role, just like we did in supporting the government and associated health authorities in outbreak management.”

She referenced Ongomiizwin’s role in co-ordinating rapid response teams with the Manitoba First Nations pandemic response co-ordination team to contain COVID-19 outbreaks. Rapid response teams have been utilized more than 60 times since the onset of the pandemic.

The move is seen by some as a step forward in First Nations’ autonomy in health care.

“The experience over the past year to date, with both provincial and federal governments, has been a collaborative effort that […] is unprecedented,” she said.

“In the next years and decades to come, we hope to see a real shift in First Nations-designed and led health programs and services […] because we’ve proven we can do it.”