‘Dearest Elders’ first to receive vaccine in Snuneymuxw First Nation, as COVID cases rise

Chief Michael Wyse says it took a strong plan and coordinated team to roll out the Moderna vaccine in his community this week.

COVID-19 cases rose to 21 in Snuneymuxw First Nation on Jan. 6, 2020, as Chief Wyse fielded media calls from his Nation’s vaccination clinic, surrounded with the busy sounds of the rollout. 

Providing information to the media and community at large is an extra task for the Chief, as he works hard to implement a rapid response to COVID-19 at Snuneymuxw First Nation.

Snuneymuxw Territory covers an area on the east coast of Vancouver Island, including the Gulf Islands, and across the strait to the Fraser River. The Nation website notes it’s one of the largest in B.C. with a population of over 1,700 people. 

66 per cent of the membership live off-reserve, and a large factor is lack of land base. The website describes reserve land base at 266 hectares, “which per capita is the smallest reserve land base in British Columbia.”

On Jan. 3, Wyse advised his community that his request for expedited vaccine delivery had been brought to the Minister of Health. Successfully, this request brought the vaccine to his community quickly, with hopes to improve community immunity. 

On Jan. 5, a letter to their “dearest Elders” shared the good news that the Moderna vaccine had arrived, as well as essential information on next steps. 

Within 24 hours of delivery, a rollout schedule was organized and Snuneymuxw Health team began administering the vaccine the next day. 

A sense of relief 

The vaccine rollout was possible with help from Island Health and First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), says Wyse. FNHA says they advocate for a whole community approach, in which everyone age 18 and over will be offered immunization.

“It’s a sense of relief in the community that we’re getting the support for our membership,” 

Wyse says. “We’re not out of the woods yet, as of this morning [January 6] the confirmed positive cases have climbed to 21.” 

First vaccines were reserved for Elders, immune-compromised people and front-line staff.

As of Jan. 7, 2020, all Snuneymuxw residents in the COVID cluster living on-reserve, and Elders off-reserve, are able to access the vaccination. 

The schedule was shifted midday on Jan. 6, when the vaccination clinic expanded the intake to all Snuneymuxw residents over the age of 18. 

“Kudos to the team and big thank you to all our partners who have come forward and supported Snuneymuxw,” says Wyse. 

COVID-19 at Snuneymuxw First Nation
Elected Chief Michael Wyse from Snuneymux First Nation shares messages of gratitude and strength to his community and supporting agencies. Photo provided by Snuneymuxw First Nation

Strong plan in place COVID-19 cases rose

For the past eight months, Snuneymuxw First Nation has been planning and refining their pandemic plan, which is part of the community emergency management plan. Wyse says having a solid plan has served as a strong guide for the COVID task force in implementing protocols, as they remain calm and focused on how to best serve the community through this outbreak. 

“We’ve done a lot of work with our team, to put these protocols in place to protect our community,” says Wyse. “We’re following them very precisely and it’s really helping us get through this at this time.”

One difficulty of managing the response is “when the numbers really hit home,” says Wyse. 

“When you start getting loved ones that are sick and falling ill to this virus, it can give you a helpless feeling.” He shares words of encouragement for others. 

“Stay the course and be strong, we’re together.”

Wyse says his team got together and started following the response protocols they had in place. 

“I needed to follow it through, to get us to where we are today.” 

Helpers shining 

Snuneymuxw’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout interrupts the grand opening of the new health centre, Snuneymuxw Helit Lelum. A grand opening had been planned for January 17. COVID-19 derailed that celebration. Outbreak management is using the space to work from, along with the band office. The gymnasium has been set up as a vaccination clinic. 

All other staff are working from home, for operations to continue through the community’s shelter in place order, and buildings closed to the public. 

Part of the intensity of an on-reserve emergency response, is that the neighbourhood being protected is also family, relatives. Wyse takes care to remind his team about self-care, too. 

“Our number one priority is to make sure our health and wellness of our Snuneymuxw people are looked after, but I’ve also shared with our frontline staff that they need to look after themselves too, so we can provide that service,” says Wyse. 

“We have a lot of staff members and a lot of external help that is shining for us right now.” 

Wyse hopes the quick delivery of vaccines will help strengthen his community. Although it is a very serious task to take on, he’s not too busy to thank his COVID task force, the Snuneymuxw Health team, Island Health and First Nations Health Authority. 

“This wouldn’t happen without all that extraordinary help coming our way,” he says.