Breen Ouellette: My first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine

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      By Breen Ouellette

      I'm making it public: earlier today I received my first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19.

      I am eligible for vaccination against COVID-19 because I am a "priority person".

      What makes me a priority person?

      I am Métis. Indigenous people have been identified by the government as a priority group for vaccination.

      I've been sharing my news privately since I booked my appointment last week. While the people I know have generally been happy for me, some have asked why I should get vaccination priority over others. I'm only 44 years old, healthy, and relatively privileged as a lawyer. I am 11 years younger than the minimum age requirement for vaccinations currently offered to the general population in B.C.

      On social media, I have seen people asking this question... more aggressively. The racism behind their questions is thinly veiled at best. Why should younger Indigenous people receive vaccination priority over elderly people and other vulnerable segments of the general population?

      The question assumes that Indigenous people are not at higher risk or deserving of special protection from COVID-19. In actuality, Indigenous people are more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the general population.

      The data indicates that Indigenous people face higher risks from COVID-19. Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said it earlier this year: "This is not a political game. It's about science, it's about facts, it's about health care. We have the numbers, the casualties. Indigenous peoples are 3.5 to five times more vulnerable to COVID, we see it with the CDC numbers in the States".

      As an Indigenous person, I pay attention when a federal minister commits to prioritizing the needs of Indigenous people. It's a rare occurrence. Remember, it was only a decade ago that the federal government sent body bags in response to a First Nation's request for medical assistance with a swine flu outbreak.

      Indigenous people are also more vulnerable due to the violence we have endured at the hands of the state and the medical system. Throughout Canada's history, the state has sponsored and conducted multiple medical experiments on Indigenous people, including in the field of vaccination. Canadian doctors and other medical professionals have been implicated for many decades in mistreatment, negligence, and attacks motivated by racism against Indigenous people.

      At present, the medical system continues to impact Indigenous people through widespread racism, as found by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond's independent investigation into Indigenous-specific discrimination in B.C. health care. For these reasons, Indigenous people often mistrust the medical system.

      The mistrust is especially deep among those people who have directly experienced medical neglect, abuse, and experimentation. Our elders are among the most vulnerable within our vulnerable group, yet some elders are among the most resistant against receiving the vaccine. They do not trust this apparent benevolence from a government that has abused them all their lives.

      This brings me back to the question of why I should receive the vaccine as a priority person. Some will claim that my privilege relative to other Indigenous people is the very reason that I should be excluded from early vaccination. This argument misses a vital point. Younger people who choose to vaccinate will share our positive vaccination experiences with our family and friends who are suspicious of this uncharacteristic preferential treatment from the government.

      We will also help identify systemic pitfalls that stand in the way of Indigenous people successfully receiving the vaccine. We will use that knowledge to help other Indigenous people avoid those pitfalls. Vaccinating younger Indigenous people helps convince and assist other Indigenous people to get vaccinated.

      This is not mere conjecture on my part. During the last week, I have been told by younger Indigenous people that they have shared their stories to convince family and friends that it is safe to get vaccinated. Some have even taken to social media to spread the word, despite the negative attention that they have received from racists.

      I also have been told by younger Indigenous people that they have assisted their relatives and friends to avoid being turned away from making appointments. Anyone who understands Indigenous people knows that this is how we support each other.

      On the other hand, I know that some Indigenous people have been intimidated into silence about receiving the vaccination. They fear an onslaught of online harassment by racist trolls. So they are only telling people within their circle of trust that they have received the vaccine. I am also aware of one Indigenous person who is being ostracized by her coworkers and supervisor because she received the vaccine. I worry that there are other Indigenous people who will delay receiving their vaccination to avoid harassment online and in their workplace.

      This situation has convinced me to go public about receiving the vaccine. My privilege provides me with a measure of safety against the risks of making this disclosure. Reporting my experience back to my Indigenous family, friends, community, and the public is too important. I will not be silenced by the potential hate that I will receive from social media trolls.

      Toward that end, here is my experience as a younger Indigenous person who has registered for vaccination against COVID-19 and received the first of two doses.

      March 31, 2021: Call to Vancouver Coastal Health vaccine registration line. The person who took my call:

      • politely but firmly tried to turn me away. She claimed that I had to be an Indigenous elder over 65 years old to register for the vaccine;
      • put me on hold for several minutes after I explained that the B.C. immunization website said I was qualified to register;
      • came back from hold and started registering me without further explanation or apology for the confusion;
      • asked for more personal information than the B.C. immunization website said I would be required to provide; and
      • took an extremely long time to find an available appointment. She said she could not find an appointment at my preferred vaccination site, so I accepted an appointment for April 6, 2021 at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The call lasted a total of 70 minutes.

      April 6, 2021: I lined up outside the doors at the Vancouver Convention Centre for my appointment to receive my first shot. It went like this:

      • after waiting in line for a minute, an outside door greeter curtly instructed me to enter the doors, use the hand sanitizer, and put on a new mask supplied by a person that the greeter pointed at inside the doors and past the hand sanitizer;
      • an inside door greeter apologized for the curtness of the outside greeter and motioned to the hand sanitizer, which I used as instructed;
      • I walked past the hand sanitizer and I was provided a new mask by a cheerful person. Coincidentally, the masks she was handing out with tongs were medical quality level 3 surgical masks. I'd be fine discarding any of my own surgical masks for one of these high quality masks, but I might be upset if I had to discard a new, more expensive KN95 mask. Plan accordingly;
      • a pleasant registration greeter asked me if I had an appointment and directed me to the first available registration desk;
      • the registration agent politely requested my care card number and marked my name on her appointment list. I was directed to use more hand sanitizer and walk through some doors to a large registration / vaccination area;
      • another pleasant greeter motioned me to walk through an empty line up area, then pointed me to an available vaccination record desk;
      • a very friendly record agent asked me for my care card and chit-chatted while filling out an immunization record slip. He asked me a few questions to complete the slip. When I self-identified as an Indigenous person, he noted "PP" in the top right corner of the slip. He explained that this stood for priority person because Indigenous people are included in that classification. He handed me the slip and directed me to enter another line, which was empty;
      • a distracted greeter asked me to wait until a spot was available for the vaccination to be administered. Someone was yelling something at her from a distance. I waited less than 30 seconds and she directed me to an open table;
      • the person administering the vaccine identified herself as a doctor. She seemed tired. The doctor asked me to sit and then asked for my letter. I said I did not have a letter. She said that I needed a letter if I was a priority person eligible for vaccination at my age. I said I didn't receive any letter, but I called the registration number and identified as an Indigenous person, and I was given this vaccination appointment. The doctor's attitude became more pleasant (a rare occurrence when I identify myself as an Indigenous person to doctors). She apologized for the confusion. She explained that I would receive the Pfizer vaccine and described the process. She took my immunization record slip and added information about the dose she was about to administer. She asked me which hand is my dominant hand, then told me that she would administer the vaccine in the opposite arm. She rolled up my sleeve and asked me to look the other way to avoid the risk that I pass out. She pinched my arm and I barely felt the needle. It was probably the easiest needle I have ever been stuck with. She put a band-aid on my arm and told me not to rub the injection spot, unlike other vaccines I may have received. She gave me the sticker pictured at the top of this post. She told me to call and register for a second shot if I'm not contacted for an appointment within 14 weeks from now. She handed me the yellow copy of the immunization record and sent me to a waiting area to sit for 15 minutes under observation, in case I had a bad reaction to the vaccine; and
      • I waited for 15 minutes without incident and then left. The whole process took less than 30 minutes.

      In the last 10 hours, I have had mild headaches, joint pain, and blurry eyesight. My arm is sore around the injection spot. All my symptoms are so mild that I haven't even bothered to take a pain killer. I might take a Tylenol before bed to make sure I get a pain-free, good night's sleep.

      That's my report for today. I'll update this post over the next few days if there are any significant developments in my symptoms. I hope this encourages more people to get vaccinated, Indigenous or not.

      Breen Ouellette is a civil litigator who worked for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. He was the NDP candidate for Vancouver Centre in the 2019 federal election. Follow him on Twitter @BreenOuellette. This article originally appeared as a post on Ouellette's blog on April 6, the day he was vaccinated.