A remote First Nation community on the West Coast has extra reason to celebrate the new year after getting the all-clear from health officials on a COVID-19 cluster and news it's at the front of the line for the Moderna vaccinations.

The Klahoose community on Cortes Island, B.C., has gone a month, or two back-to-back quarantine periods, without any new COVID-19 cases, said Chief Kevin Peacey.

“We’re considered free and clear of COVID-19 at this time, with no known new active cases in December,” Peacey said.

“Our family household celebrated this on Dec. 27, which was also my wife Georgina's birthday, who said being COVID-free was the best gift.”

Plus, Island Health and the First Nations Health Authority informed Klahoose First Nation, which has 90 members, that it would likely receive Moderna vaccines by the first week of January.

“Our community has been given priority because of how remote we are, along with seven other remote First Nation communities in the Island Health region,” Peacey said.

Cortes Island, located off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, only has a small medical clinic, and getting to the nearest hospital is a journey that includes two ferry rides.

“It can be quite stressful being so far away from hospital services during a deadly pandemic,” Peacey said.

“Of course, right now we are really looking to the vaccine to protect us from going through any further COVID-19 crises. We are feeling positive about that.”

Klahoose plans to start vaccinating residents of the reserve in Squirrel Cove as of Monday, said Peacey, who added he will get the shot early on to encourage other community members to do the same.

“I'm feeling confident that we can trust the science behind the Moderna vaccine and the First Nations Health Authority team that have been able to satisfactorily answer all our questions,” he said.

“Right now, we are really looking to the vaccine to protect us from going through any further COVID-19 crises. We are feeling positive about that," says Klahoose Chief Kevin Peacey as Moderna vaccines are set to arrive in his isolated community.

Amanda Whitmore, a member of the Klahoose community health team, said the community clinic is expecting vaccines for approximately 60 people.

Ideally, everyone will get vaccinated, but the goal is to get 80 to 90 per cent of the population inoculated, Whitmore said, adding the second dose will be administered a month later.

The community went into lockdown on Nov. 26 and declared a state of local emergency after four people in the small island community tested positive for the virus.

The Klahoose First Nation did a good job of staying in their household bubbles over Christmas to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said emergency response manager Tina Wesley. Photo courtesy of Tina Wesley

Tina Wesley, the Klahoose emergency response manager, said the key to rapidly containing the community’s cluster was having emergency response and pandemic plans in place ahead of time.

When the COVID-19 crisis in B.C. began to unfold in the spring, Wesley and other community members started getting prepared, she said, adding she has worked to ready the community for a range of emergency scenarios on a volunteer basis for six years.

“Preparedness is huge. It doesn't matter what emergency it is, it's something that I've been working on and it was baby steps to get things into place,” Wesley said.

“We had a pandemic plan, and then we just refurbished it, and we added to it with COVID-19.”

As soon as Klahoose got news of its first COVID-19 case, a lockdown and checkpoint were established to prevent further spread of the virus in or out of the community, and an emergency operations team was assembled, Wesley said.

Immediately, measures were taken to ensure folks got essentials or medical supplies delivered so that they could stay safe inside their homes.

A community patrol made sure people remembered not to visit other households in the village, and wellness checks were done regularly to monitor any potential spread of the virus.

Though the strict lockdown was lifted in mid-December, the Klahoose community is still adhering to the provincial restrictions limiting social interactions to single households and only leaving home for essential goods or appointments, Wesley said.

Community education around the need to continue to follow pandemic protocols and provincial health orders is still ongoing, she said.

“We’re letting people know this isn’t about punishment,” Wesley said.

“It’s just to ensure that everybody is safe. It’s so everybody understands that we are all looking out for each other.”

Klahoose residents did an excellent job of limiting Christmas celebrations to their households, she added.

“Because of the scare, because of what happened, everybody's super cautious,” Wesley said.

While the community's outbreak response was quick and effective, Peacey said he would have liked to have had rapid testing available.

“Symptoms or no symptoms, that would have helped us determine how far the virus had spread and who was safe to work on our response team and who should just be staying home,” Peacey said.

The first order of business for any First Nation community with a COVID-19 case should be to contact the First Nations Health Authority, Peacey said.

“They are well-prepared and ready to help our people, and this should be your first call if you are dealing with COVID-19 in your community,” he said.

Emergency Social Services and Emergency Management British Columbia were agencies that helped the community during the outbreak, Peacey added.

And although the community has the infrastructure and experience to respond again if another COVID-19 case should surface, Peacey is relieved the vaccines are arriving.

“I see this as a gift for our remote on-reserve community,” he said. “It's a solution to a problem we have been having to manage here since March.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer