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Vaccines are here!

The healthcare workers received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

(COURTESY KAHNAWAKE 911)

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A light at the end of the tunnel.

That’s a saying we have heard a lot since Quebec launched its COVID-19 vaccination campaign. And on December 23, it became true for the first few Kahnawa’kehró:non.

More than 50 health and social service workers from the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre (KMHC), the Turtle Bay Elders’ Lodge and the Independent Living Centre (ILC) in Kahnawake have been administered their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Following the Quebec government’s proposed order of priority of groups for vaccination, the community’s frontline workers were eligible to be among the first ones in Quebec to receive the vaccine.

KMHC executive director Lisa Westaway explained that the first approved vaccine is too fragile to be moved around once it’s delivered to a certain location. It must be kept frozen, close to minus 80 degrees, which makes it extremely challenging to transport.

“That’s why it’s the healthcare workers that are prioritized, because they are mobile,” said Westaway, acknowledging that the initial eligible group is vulnerable people and people with a significant loss of autonomy and then healthcare workers.

Kahnawa’kehró:non received the first round of vaccine, out of two, 26 kilometres away from the community, at Quartier Dix30 in Brossard. They will receive the second dose by the end of January – or 21 days after the first dose.

While the experience might have been stressful for some, KMHC long-term care manager Robin Guyer just wanted it to be done quickly. Not out of fear of the vaccine being painful, but rather out of exhaustion of witnessing the way people are living.

“It’s heartbreaking to see,” said Guyer, “how the residents want to be with their families and them wanting to come in. For me, this is just to get out of this as fast as possible and be able to get back to our lives with family members being present.”

Guyer described the shot as surprisingly painless, with side effects similar to a flu shot: sore arm, headache and sometimes fever. Although Guyer acknowledged that it can be scary to be among the first to receive a new vaccine, as a health worker she is also proud to be a model for others and spread accurate information.

“We are getting a good response from people wanting to go and get the vaccine,” said Guyer.

A lot of misinformation and conspiracies have been circulating the Internet regarding the virus and the vaccines.

According to Statistic Canada, one in 10 Canadians said they didn’t know if they would get vaccinated. Yet, the negative response isn’t something that Westaway is worried about, as she explained that Kahnawake has always had a good response rate when it comes to vaccination campaigns.

“There have been a few comments here and there if you look at Facebook, but generally, people are super excited and ready for this,” she said.

On December 23, Health Canada authorized the second COVID-19 vaccine in Canada, manufactured by Moderna. Westaway said that the KMHC is preparing to receive doses of that vaccine, which is less fragile than Pfizer, and therefore can be easily distributed, within a few days.

Starting next week, KMHC will be administering Moderna to its patients, along with residents of the Elders’ Lodge and the ILC. However, the rapidity of it all depends on a lot of variables.

Earlier in December, prime minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that with this second vaccine, the priority was to ship doses to the north and to Onkwehón:we communities.

Moderna can be stored at minus 20 and up to 30 days in regular refrigerated temperatures once thawed for injection, and is easier to handle and store, so it allows for the vaccine to be distributed directly to remote communities – those that are a higher priority due to vulnerability.

Canada has purchased 40 million doses from Moderna, and expects delivery of up to 168,000 doses before the end of December, conditional on Health Canada approval. Deliveries could begin within 48 hours of regulatory authorization.

“We are not sure how many doses we will receive,” said Westaway. “We hope to be able to start vaccinating the whole of the community by March, at the latest. There is some political debate right now about prioritizing all First Nations communities, not just the remote ones,” she added, “and depending on where that goes, which is beyond us, we may see vaccination of our whole community sooner or later.”

In order to tackle the pandemic effectively, 70 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, which is necessary before looking into lifting safety measures.

The KMHC executive director knows the community. She understands people are eager to get back to their lives, wondering when it will be their turn.

This being said, her final words were reassuring.

“We will vaccinate our own people within the community by our own KMHC staff,” she said. “That’s 100 percent sure!”

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