Five months into the NWT’s vaccination campaign, the Tlicho and Sahtu regions lag behind the other regions of the NWT in their vaccine uptake rates.
The Tlicho region has the lowest vaccination rates in the territory, with 36 per cent of residents fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Health and Social Services (HSS)’ online vaccination coverage map.
The Sahtu region is second lowest – its rate for full vaccination stands at 47 per cent.
By contrast, the Fort Smith region has the highest rate of 61 per cent for fully vaccinated individuals. Dehcho’s rate for full vaccination is 59 per cent; Yellowknife’s is 52 per cent; the Beaufort Delta is at 51 per cent and Hay River’s rate is 50 per cent.
Across the territory, 51 per cent of eligible residents are fully vaccinated.
Vaccination statistics for smaller, individual communities are shared only with Indigenous and community leadership and not made public so as to avoid criticism and stigma, said HSS spokesperson Damien Healy.
Making access as convenient as possible
The reasons why some communities have lower vaccine rates than others vary, Healy explained.
“Factors such as convenience, confidence and complacency contribute to vaccine uptake,” he said. “Our goal is to vaccinate as many eligible people as possible, and by providing access to make the vaccine as convenient as possible (three rounds of visits to all communities, pop-up clinics, extended clinic hours/weekends, etc).”
Residents in communities that have already received three rounds of vaccine clinic visits are encouraged to inform their health centres if they still want a vaccine.
All communities in the Sahtu and Tlicho regions have received three visits by vaccine teams. Healy said there is no maximum number of trips that teams would make.
“If demand suggests another trip is required, we can go again. The current process is to develop a wait list,” he said. “When we have a list that allows us to open a vial without waste, we will vaccinate.”
Residents can also receive a vaccine in a regional hub at any time, Healy added.
He acknowledged that even if a list is prepared of eligible people ready for the vaccine, there’s no guarantee they will show up for their appointments.
Any unused doses are transported back to Yellowknife in the freezer cases.
Misinformation fuelling hesitancy
Vaccine hesitancy in Tlicho communities accounts for the lower uptake, said Ted Blondin, board chair of the Tlicho Community Services Agency (TCSA).
In the Tlicho region, many young people receive false information about COVID-19 vaccines from social media, he suggested.
“They get on social media and get the information wrong. They make the wrong assumptions and that’s playing into their fears,” Blondin said. “I find that whatever is happening down south, Yellowknife is the first community (in the NWT) to experience it. Behchoko is usually the second community to experience it because it’s just down the road. So the biggest fears and the most hesitancy is in Behchoko.”
Young people tend to receive more information about the world from social media compared to Elders, who listen to radio broadcasts in Tlicho, according to Blondin.
“(Over the radio) they get communications from the health centres, with all of the statistics on what is needed on how to keep Elders and the community safe,” he said.
While the Tlicho Government has posted an online information video in the Tlicho language, presented by interpreter Rose Mantla, TCSA leadership is considering launching another series of Tlicho broadcasts over CBC and CKLB to provide more factual information on the the vaccines to dispel fears, Blondin said.
Mantla has also worked to translate vaccine information for residents at clinics in Tlicho communities, such as in Wekweeti in January.
Blondin doesn’t criticize people for being afraid of the vaccine as long as they keep asking questions about it.
“People can be fearful but it also means they’re being careful, and that’s how we want people to be, so we have to get people to keep asking questions. The safest thing to do is to get vaccinated. That’s why we’re trying to get information to them.”
In the Sahtu region, distorted facts about vaccines as seen on social media are also discouraging many younger people from getting vaccinated, said Colville Lake Chief Wilbert Kochon.
Almost all of the Elders in the remote Dene community have been vaccinated but most younger people haven’t, he said.
“The misinformation is a problem. People should be getting the facts,” said Kochon. “Until they do, they’ll believe the misinformation. Maybe we should do a workshop or something to show that (the vaccines) are safe enough. COVID-19 is coming closer to home. If you’re not getting protected, you have to worry about that.”
More vaccine openness in Norman Wells, Tulita
Kochon spoke one day after two cases of COVID-19 were reported among Imperial Oil workers in Norman Wells.
In the oil town itself, vaccine uptake is high, said Mayor Frank Pope.
“I can’t talk on behalf of the other communities (but) most of the people have had their two shots here and those who haven’t will get them pretty soon,” he said. “We’ve had good turnout at most of the clinics and they should be starting with the younger groups pretty soon.”
Don Smeltzer, interim SAO of Tulita said that while the community’s data on vaccinations is confidential, turnout has been good.
“I hope in May (the vaccine team) will come back again to give the second dose for those who’ve received the first. A large number of people turned out for the first clinic. A smaller number came out for the second clinic. I think we’ll see a large number of people before long.”