“I want more!” said a laughing Wekweekti Chief Charlie Football, just after he received his Moderna shot on Wednesday, making him the first member of the community to be vaccinated.
Football’s comment elicited applause from the medical staff and other people in the Tlicho community’s Youth Centre, where dozens of Wekweeti residents filed in for their Covid-19 vaccinations.
“I’m excited. I just want to show my people that I could do it,” Football said.
Chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola was the second person in the Youth Centre to get the Covid shot.
“I didn’t really feel it,” Kandola said, smiling, just seconds after Teresa Patzer, a nurse from Behchoko, gave her the jab.
Almost two weeks after the NWT’s vaccination campaign began on Dec. 31, Kandola said 18 communities have received their first doses of Moderna by the end of the week of Jan. 10-17, part of the January schedule to target priority populations and remote Indigenous communities.
Of the 110 doses the vaccination team brought to Wekweeti in a freezer box, 40 were used on Wednesday, said Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson Damien Healy.
Kandola echoed Football’s sentiment of “excitement” over the vaccine reaching Wekweeti.
“These remote Indigenous communities are quite vulnerable to the spread to Covid. It’s wonderful that we can roll out a vaccine that prevents the severity of disease,” she said.
Kandola highlighted the campaign’s successes thus far. All residents and support staff in the seven long-term care facilities of the NWT have been vaccinated. That comprises Yellowknife, Behchoko, Norman Wells, Hay River, Fort Smith, Fort Simpson and Inuvik.
High-risk health care workers were also vaccinated at hospitals in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Hay River and Fort Smith.
The current round of vaccinations focuses on communities that only have “health cabins” and not permanent health centres.
Kandola acknowledged that one challenge the campaign has faced is vaccine hesitancy in small communities.
“(There was) the desire to see myself get vaccinated, so I can lead by example and show that vaccines are safe,” she said. “In those communities, more people are asking questions, they don’t want to be the first (to be vaccinated). They want to see more people get vaccinated, and it’ll be a matter of time before they decide to come forward. But the more information they have, the better they can make a decision.
“The risk will always be here of Covid transmission (but) the vaccine decreases the risk of acquiring severe Covid by 94.1 per cent. The whole purpose of this is not end up like B.C. or Ontario or Alberta, where hospital beds are maxed, ICUs are beyond capacity or at near full capacity. By vaccinating as many people at-risk as possible, we are decreasing that strain on our health-care system.”
One woman in Wekweeti who admitted to feeling some uncertainty over the vaccine was Danielle Judas.
“I feel good but it’s nerve-wracking at the same time,” she said, just after getting her vaccination.
“With the whole pandemic, you just never know what can happen. Or if (the vaccine) will actually work. (But) I actually think it’s a really good idea. We have to take the same precautions as everyone else, even though we’re a small community. I’m the recreation coordinator and I deal with kids every day. It’s very important for me to get this.”
Mary-Adele Tsatchia felt no hesitancy at all and said she has been praying daily for the vaccine to reach Wekweeti.
“I feel happy and I feel great that I got the vaccine,” she said. “It can save lives. I’ve heard a lot of stories on TV and on the radio of people dying from Covid. I feel so heartbroken about people who have lost loved ones.”
The work of Rose Mantla is a key part of the vaccination effort in a community like Wekweeti, where many people are more comfortable communicating in the Tlicho language, and where some are unsure of the vaccine.
She translated details of the vaccination process for Elders who came in for their shots and translated for Kandola as she explained the importance of vaccinations for people who were skeptical.
But even as a bilingual English-Tlicho speaker, she had to do some homework before the translation work began on Wednesday.
“There are medical terms I really need to understand closely to be able to translate,” said Mantla, who works as a Tlicho language culture coordinator with the Tlicho Community Services Agency.
Some English terms, like “vaccine” don’t have a direct equivalent in Tlicho. In her research, she found “medicine that you get a needle with” was the closest translation. She said the Tlicho term she uses for Covid-19 vaccine is “Tadade’ga naidee wet’a gooi’goo.”
Similarly, the concept of a vaccine “fighting off” a disease doesn’t directly translate to Tlicho.
“We have to say (in Tlicho) the body protects itself by being stronger to beat the disease,” she said.
Alex Canuel-Kirkwood and Stephanie Cochrane support the vaccinations as logisticians, working with plans, temperature readings on the Moderna freezer box and hardware. They don’t administer shots, but they still deeply appreciate the significance of the vaccinations.
“I’m elated,” Canuel-Kirkwood said, as he crunched data on his laptop. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I’ll be looking back on this for decades, bragging that I was involved in global vaccination efforts.”
And the efforts wouldn’t succeed without the logisticians, who hauled the freezer box containing Moderna doses onto the plane in Yellowknife, into a van in Wekweekti and then into the Youth Centre. They monitored the temperature constantly to make sure the inside of the box stays between -15 C and -25 C.
In cases of community members who are over 18 years not showing up for the vaccination, the doses stay in the box and are taken back to Yellowknife for other priority groups, Canuel-Kirkwood said.
While Kandola recognizes that many NWT residents are feeling fatigue with the some of the ongoing public health restrictions, she noted that the three territories have an opportunity to “dodge a bullet” by receiving vaccines ahead of the rest of Canada, with vaccinations scheduled for the general population of the NWT in March.
“The impact that Covid has had on provinces across Canada is not the story that we will be telling – that we would actually have significantly less risk and be able to be more open and have less restrictions,” she said.