First Nations sign agreement with B.C. to access COVID-19 data near their communities

WatchA coalition of First Nations in B.C. have reached an agreement with the province's top doctor to receive more detailed information about COVID-19 case numbers near their communities.

A coalition of First Nations in B.C. have reached an agreement with the province’s top doctor to receive more detailed information about COVID-19 case numbers near their communities.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, will frequently provide the Tsilhqot’in National Government, the Heiltsuk Nation and the Nuuchahnulth Tribal Council Member Nations with the reports under the new agreement.

“We wanted to know how many cases were there so that we could advise our members whether to avoid those towns, or to take extra precautions,” said Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council. “We just really wanted to make sure they didn’t come back to the reserves with COVID.”

The nations, however, can only disclose the number of cases in a community in their public risk statements if certain thresholds are met, according to the agreement.

Officials hope the new data, expected to be released within days, will help stop an outbreak like those seen previously in Cowichan Tribes and Snuneymuxw First Nations.

“The numbers of Tseshaht who have tested positive for COVID took a spike sometime around early December… and they continued to increase through December and January,” said Hugh Braker, Tseshaht First Nations emergency operations coordinator.

“In those two months we had more COVID cases than we had in the nine months prior,” he noted.

READ MORE: First Nations continue to demand B.C. disclose location of COVID-19 cases near their communities

As COVID-19 cases rise in the Alberni Valley, supportive food programs are expected to expand.

The Port Alberni Friendship Centre delivers hampers of food to hundreds of Indigenous elders or families in need every week.

“[It’s] so that they don’t have to stand in a line up for hampers,” said Cyndi Stevens, executive director of the centre. “And they can stay safe at home.”

The Tseshaht First Nation also distributes seafood to stock freezers, and care kits of cleaning supplies for homes, Baker added, so members don’t have to go into the city where they can be exposed to the virus.

“We’re a little bit nervous,” he said. “We’re hopeful that the immunizations can happen soon because we’re hopeful that that will put a stop to the growth in cases.”

The information sharing agreements note the provincial health officer and nations agree the details being disclosed do “not satisfy the requests made” and the nations “view negotiating this Agreement to have been a long and frustrating process.”

The agreement also outlines the nations believe systemic change must occur in the province’s healthcare system so sufficient and timely information is shared with Indigenous governments during emergencies.

“I recognize that Indigenous communities in British Columbia have been seriously and negatively impacted by historical epidemics,” said the provincial health officer in a press release. “My office is sharing information in the spirit of reconciliation, to realize self-governance and self-determination, and to ensure an effective public health response to COVID-19.”

READ MORE: New report says ‘inequitable access’ to healthcare services in B.C. for Indigenous peoples

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