A sense of cautious optimism is spreading across northern Manitoba as First Nations prepare for one of the most ambitious health campaigns in Canada.
The first trickle of COVID-19 vaccine doses in a push to immunize most adults in remote communities started this week, while the long-awaited inoculation supersite in Thompson has been so popular, it’s run out of shots.
“Everybody was just jolly and I don’t think there were any complaints,” Bernice Thorassie, client navigator for Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, told reporters at a virtual briefing Tuesday.
Thorassie said she was impressed at how Manitoba’s public health officials kept a steady pace and an appropriate distance as they administered doses to 175 people from Tataskweyak Cree Nation.
The band had chartered five buses to drive the two hours to Thompson for vaccinations, a process that involves getting consent forms ready, making sure people fit the age quota and sometimes answering questions in languages such as Cree.
The province originally faced criticism over initial planning for the Thompson supersite (set at the airport, far from the city with no public transit and limited access to washrooms); ultimately, the Thompson Regional Community Centre has been a better fit, with glitches ironed out.
“They were really, really nice; I was actually surprised at how structured it was and how people were moving through the TRCC to prevent cross-contamination,” said Thorassie, who praised officials for also providing lunches to people arriving from outside the city.
Soon, much of the north will have vaccines come to them, thanks to an effort to administer the required two doses of Moderna to 50,000 people by Canada Day.
The effort spans 84 communities, including 63 reserves and 21 adjacent towns. The military will help get doses to 23 of these communities.
Reserves such as Pimicikamak and Chemawawin have set up vaccination sites in local arenas, serving the reserve as well as adjacent towns (Cross Lake and Easterville, respectively).
Joni Wilson, who represents MKO on the province’s vaccine task force, said Manitoba is prioritizing communities that have experienced natural disasters because of the complexity it would incur to safely evacuate unvaccinated people, should that need to occur.
“Some of the considerations were regarding seasonal factors, such as overground flooding as well as (winter) roads and ice break-ups,” said Wilson.
The doses are almost always flown in, sometimes by helicopter, instead of being transported by ice road. But losing an ice road means everyone would have to pile into planes if there was an evacuation, which increases the risk of mass outbreaks.
The four reserves around Island Lake, for example, have had multiple wildfire evacuations in the past two decades.
COVID-19 has been relentless in the area, with the military called in twice to help as the coronavirus spread from one reserve to another.
Four Arrows Health Authority has tracked 1,387 cases (of which 64 are active) in a region of roughly 15,000 people.
That’s nearly one in 10 people having been infected, a rate health director Alex McDougall says is unheard of in Manitoba communities with roads and proper health services.
“We’ve made many comparisons to populations similar to our size, and even smaller,” he said.
The vaccination ramp-up is still in the works, but the talks so far suggest all four communities will get a large shipment of doses shortly after Easter, likely a total of around 5,700 shots. Some communities will use their school gyms to deliver jabs into arms.
While some northern communities should have enough doses to inoculate everyone, Island Lake will have to start with an age threshold until subsequent shipments.
The region has already immunized many elders, which is already bringing some piece of mind. A recent case at one household led to everyone who resided there testing positive for COVID-19 — except for one person who had the vaccine.
“It’s a pretty good indication of how the vaccines can help,” said McDougall, while stressing the pandemic won’t be over right away.
“We’re still under high alert and we’re anticipating another round of outbreaks in our communities.”