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Yukon’s COVID vaccine rollout falls short for First Nations care, engagement: auditor

A report from Canada’s auditor general found that Yukon’s COVID-19 immunization rollout hadshortcomings, including a lack of engagement with First Nations, some of whom worried they were test subjects for the new vaccine. 

The report, presented to the Yukon legislature on Tuesday, found “weaknesses,” ranging from some departments lacking an updated emergency plan for a pandemic to the use of manual inventory tracking that led to vaccine wastage.

But the biggest fault identified by the report, said deputy auditor general Andrew Hayes, was the lack of collaboration with First Nations on the planning and delivery of vaccinations.

“It’s a missed opportunity because every chance that you have to break down obstacles, to increase cultural sensitivity and inclusion, and frankly to build trust, every opportunity should be taken to do that, ” Hayes said, referring to the barriers faced by First Nations when they try to access health care.

“Engaging with the First Nations from the start will definitely give the government an opportunity to understand and address some concerns that may exist,” he said in an interview. 

The report makes seven recommendations, such as creating data-sharing protocols with First Nations groups and cultural competency training. 

The Yukon government said it has accepted every recommendation with an eye on quickly implementing them. 

In a joint statement, Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee and Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn said the government “will continue to work with First Nations governments and municipalities to implement the lessons learned from the pandemic” in outlining “clear roles, responsibilities and communication strategies during future such emergencies.” 

The report said some First Nation residents had “concern that they were the test cases to determine the efficacy of the vaccination,” and many workers involved in the immunization program lacked the training to ease those anxieties.

The report also said residents and non-governmental organizations felt the immunization environment “was overly clinical” and lacked cultural support, unless the clinics were run directly by First Nations.

Most importantly, Hayes said, Yukon took about nine months of preparation time for its vaccine plan, but the process did not involve any engagement with First Nations.

First Nations communities “had limited input” during the vaccine implementation, leading to problems such as the lack of culturally sensitive care, the report said. 

The report also highlighted the lack of data for patients self-identifying as Indigenous, leaving the Yukon government and First Nations leadership with few tools to plan vaccine rollouts in specific communities.

Hayes said it is ultimately an individual’s choice of what information to share, but it’s also government’s responsibility to explain how the data will be used. 

“If someone didn’t want to identify as a member of a particular group, that’s OK. But we would encourage the government to have those conversations, so that people can make informed decisions,” Hayes said. 

Overall, the report confirmed that Yukon’s vaccine rollout was successful, with the territory vaccinating vulnerable groups such as seniors in Whitehorse within six weeks of receiving its first shipment.

Vaccination rates and the number of vaccine doses wasted in Yukon were in line with figures recorded in other territories and provinces, Hayes said.

The key was for the audit report to find shortcomings, so similar rollouts can be improved in the future, Hayes said. 

First Nations make up 20 per cent of the territory’s population, so their input is especially pertinent, he said.

“I would say that the recommendations about engaging with First Nations … are important for every program and service that the government offers,” Hayes said. 

“If you look at the possibility of a future pandemic, you want to square those plans now, make sure they’re up to date and they’re drawing from the lessons learned during this pandemic, so that you are not scrambling to address a future emergency.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2023.

Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press

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