Estimates of how many people living in the Mohawk nation in Aquesne have been fully vaccinated vary greatly, but its chief says the numbers are low due to cross-border vaccination.
Aquesne is unique in that it covers more than 10,000 hectares of land in Quebec, Ontario and New York. Its residents are dual citizens of both Canada and the US and are allowed under treaty rights to travel between the two countries during the pandemic.
It also means residents are required to navigate three health jurisdictions – at times a source of frustration for the local Mohawk government, which is trying to track who has tested positive for COVID-19. tests and who has received the vaccine.
“It’s a real quagmire in this situation,” said Abram Benedict, the grand head of the Mohawk Council of Aquesne on the Canadian side.
crossing the border for a vaccine
The latest figures from the Canadian side of the Mohawk Nation show that as of early July, only 1,173 people among a population of 12,000 were fully vaccinated — just less than 10 percent.
South of the border, the area of New York is known as the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. Its numbers from the same period show that 3,508 out of 11,000 residents received both doses – about a third of the population.
Benedict believes the data for his community is incomplete because residents travel to pharmacies and clinics in New York for vaccinations. Residents are encouraged to notify their home jurisdiction if they do, but chiefs say some self-report.
“We don’t have all these numbers in one system,” said Benedict, who believes the true percentage of the fully vaccinated population is closer to 50 percent.
“But I can’t prove [it with] any kind of data.”
The chief said the lack of communication between public health officials in Ontario, Quebec and New York is also a “nightmare”.
The Eastern Ontario health unit declined to comment, while the health unit for the Quebec segment said people living there should notify Mohawk Council if they are vaccinated to obtain a vaccine receipt.
A spokesman for the New York state government said it did not have jurisdiction over the First Nations.
Vaccine hesitancy an issue
Dr Ozistoh Horn, the only family physician on Canada’s behalf for most of the pandemic, disputes Benedict’s estimates. She said it was unlikely that some 5,000 patients would have crossed the St. Lawrence River to get the shot.
Horn said many residents don’t trust the federal government, which has led to hesitation in a vaccine, and it’s difficult to overcome.
“We have a deep distrust,” she said, especially noting residential schools and their multi-generational influence.
The family doctor admitted that she did not plan to take the COVID-19 vaccine until she knew it was safe, and provided enough information to respond to patients’ concerns.
Horn is now fully vaccinated, but he’s reassuring himself 82 year old mother will be vaccinated “It was a long process.”
Horn recalled, “I managed to overcome her fear, to allow her mind to look at all the stuff, the information, and come up with the decision to vaccinate.”
Despite the challenges, Aquesne’s Mohawk Nation has managed to reduce the number of COVID cases in its two communities to less than 700 since the start of the pandemic – an incidence rate comparable to that of Ottawa.
Going forward, Benedict said his community still needs to start mobile vaccine clinics to reach certain pockets. As a family therapist, Horn says, she and other front-line workers need to be involved to help ease residents’ concerns.