The NWT’s Covid-19 vaccination program is moving ahead, with the 162 initial doses given to members of high-priority groups since vaccinations began on Dec. 31, Health Minister Julie Green said Wednesday.
The number of doses marks an increase over the 130 that Green said on Tuesday had been administered to Elders and support staff at AVENS in Yellowknife and at the Jimmy Erasmus Seniors Home in Behchoko.
The vaccinations of those individuals at long-term care facilities form one of the priority groups who will be the first to receive Moderna vaccines in January and February, part of the GNWT’s goal of vaccinating 75 per cent of the eligible population over the age of 18.
Priority groups in almost all communities of the NWT are expected to be vaccinated by the end of January, according to a schedule posted online by the NWT Health and Social Services Authority.
Chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola, who also spoke during the Standing Committee on Accountability and Oversight meeting on Wednesday, said that vaccination information has been translated into 10 of the NWT’s 11 official languages.
“A terminology workshop has been booked for next week to determine scientific and technological words that are new for Covid-19 and how to describe the words in Indigenous languages so that the translation can be standardized,” Kandola said.
A video explainer on the vaccinations is expected to be complete by the end of the week, with an additional video addressing vaccine hesitancy to be made the following week.
Kandola, Green and territorial medical director Dr. AnneMarie Pegg also fielded questions on the details of the vaccination program.
Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty asked what the plan is for the remaining 25 per cent of residents not covered in the main vaccination goal, and for those under age 18.
Kandola responded that between April and June she expects the federal government will begin providing more vaccines made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson that will be available for remaining residents who wish to receive vaccines.
For youth ages 12-18, Kandola explained that Moderna is currently conducting a clinical trial and if that vaccine is just as efficacious then that age range could be included in future target groups.
She added that other manufacturers are aiming to conduct trials for children younger than 12.
Lafferty then asked if individuals who end up not getting vaccinated or refuse to be vaccinated will be barred from public places like theatres.
Green said being vaccinated isn’t mandatory, but some services might require vaccination before they can be accessed. While she didn’t elaborate on that point, she later stated that no one will lose their jobs if they choose not to be vaccinated.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson asked about a timeline for relaxing restrictions.
“I have lots of constituents who have tourism businesses and they want to know if they should have a summer season or not,” Johnson said. “It affects our entire infrastructure. Is it safe to say that after this summer, after we get to 75 per cent vaccination, we can expect those restrictions to be lifted?”
As vaccination levels increase in the NWT, Kandola said, some restrictions can be relaxed, with more gatherings being possible and the territory “moving into a form of phase three.”
The third phase of the Emerging Wisely plan calls for removing limits on outdoor gatherings, tourism activities and some adult education classes, though physical distancing and sanitization would continue.
Higher levels of vaccination might permit more freedom to travel between Yukon and Nunavut because that territory shares the NWT’s goal of reaching 75 per cent immunization of eligible populations. But travel restrictions with other provinces would still be in place due if those jurisdictions’ vaccination levels remain low.
“For the rest of Canada, they’re not going to achieve herd immunity or significant immunization, until probably the end of 2021,” Kandola said.
A key piece of science that would make a big difference in the ability to move freely is if it’s found that the vaccines prevent transmission in addition to preventing illness, Kandola said.
In response to a similar question from Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson, Kandola said rising levels of immunization in the coming months will permit more easing in regards to where people can self-isolate.
“They may not need to be the four hubs” of Yellowknife, Inuvik, Fort Smith and Hay River, she said.
Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler asked why mobile vaccination teams need to be sent to the communities if competent nursing teams already on site could just as well administer the vaccines.
Green responded that the deployment of vaccination teams is part of a “combined approach… not a drop-in, drop-out approach.”
“While vaccination is rolling out, other health issues are going to continue in a lot of these communities. People also need to be available to respond to those,” said Pegg, who added that the vaccination teams will supplement and not replace local nursing teams.
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby asked if individuals with compromised immune systems can be vaccinated, considering that the Immunity for our Communities strategy recommends against vaccination for those people.
Kandola said the National Advisory Committee on Immunization made that recommendation only because not enough data is available yet for populations who are immunocompromised.
She advised that those individuals should discuss the vaccine with their doctors to learn about risks and benefits before proceeding.
“If you want the vaccine and your physician supports it, you will get the vaccine,” Kandola said.
Kevin O’Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, asked the officials for specifics on how residents can sign up for vaccinations and how information on priority groups will be identified.
Pegg responded that vaccine registration will differ among smaller and larger communities.
A city like Yellowknife will likely use an online registration system such as was deployed in fall 2020 for flu clinics, she said. Smaller communities will receive more direct communication and, if necessary, vaccination teams will visit individuals in their homes to administer the vaccine.
The identification of priority groups will be publicly communicated, with diabetics or people with renal or liver disease being included in those communications.
“We’re relying on people to self-identify for these, there’s not going to be a need for validation from your physician. We don’t want to overwhelm the clinics with people requesting letters of authorization,” Pegg said.
Kam Lake MLA Caitlyn Cleveland inquired as to whether someone who already has an illness such a cough or just sniffles can still be vaccinated against Covid.
Pegg said that a person wouldn’t be eligible for vaccination if they’re at high risk of having contracted Covid, symptomatic of Covid, still in the 14-day isolation period or if they had recent contact with another person diagnosed with Covid.
“They would be instructed to continue to follow isolation requirements. They would be tested for Covid and if the test was negative, they would be offered vaccination at the next available opportunity when teams are returning to that place, if it’s an isolated community,” she said.
Individuals with lower-risk symptoms would be offered vaccination.
Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos asked if vaccinations will reduce the required two-week isolation period for people entering the NWT.
Kandola responded that if someone receives two vaccine doses and if it’s shown that they don’t transmit coronavirus, then self-monitoring and confirmatory tests could replace isolation.
“I’m hoping in six weeks that question can be answered through science and through the monitoring surveillance,” she said.