North Dakota offers free vaccinations to Manitoba truckers travelling to U.S.

Manitoba and North Dakota announced a joint effort on Tuesday to vaccinate cross-border truck drivers with the potential for further partnerships targeting other essential workers.

Roughly 2,000 to 4,000 drivers expected to take part in program, which starts Wednesday

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum say their joint-vaccination plan is the first between Canadian and American jurisdictions. (Guy Leblanc/CBC)

North Dakota will offer free vaccines starting Wednesday to Manitoba truck drivers who transport goods across the border.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum made the joint announcement on Tuesday.

This is the first such program between a Canadian and American jurisdiction, the leaders said during a news conference.

"It's really fantastic that we're able to sign this historic agreement during these incredibly challenging times," said Burgum, who gave full credit to Pallister for the idea, saying the premier called him up and proposed it.

"Just like in the communities that he and I both grew up — small, rural communities — it was always about neighbours helping neighbours."

With help from the Manitoba Trucking Association, Manitoba will identify eligible drivers and work with North Dakota to schedule vaccination appointments during those truckers' routine trips to the U.S. over the next six to eight weeks.

"The one thing going that's different right now is that the U.S. has got a lot of vaccine and Canada's got less, so this is an opportunity for us to work together," said Burgum.

WATCH | Manitoba premier talks about partnership with North Dakota:

North Dakota to vaccinate cross-border truckers from Manitoba

1 year ago
Duration 0:58
As many as 4,000 Manitoba truckers who drive across the border into North Dakota are being offered a COVID-19 vaccine.

Roughly 2,000 to 4,000 Manitoba drivers are expected to take part in the program, set to begin Wednesday.

The state will be providing the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and, once it is approved again, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

U.S. health officials put a "pause" on administration of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots.

"Today is a small victory over some of the challenges that we face in dealing with the largest health and economic pandemic in our time, and today is an important victory also for health-care co-operation," Pallister said.

The North Dakota Department of Health will provide nurses and other staff to administer the first and second doses of the vaccine to provide full immunization of truckers.

The state will then provide proof of immunization to those who are vaccinated, and share records of immunization with Manitoba.

No cost to Canada

There is no cost to the state or province, as the U.S. government supplies the vaccine and reimburses the costs to administer doses, a news release from the province says.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation's rest area near Drayton, N.D., which is 50 kilometres south of the international border, will initially serve as the vaccination site, operating from noon to 8 p.m. local time on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Winnipeg truck driver Punjab Ghumman said he'll happily take up North Dakota's offer for free vaccines while he's on a routine trip through the state. (Submitted by Punjab Ghumman)

Manitoba's trucking industry is raving about a first-of-its-kind initiative between the two countries.

Punjab Ghumman, a 32-year-old trucker from Winnipeg, is eager to take up North Dakota's offer. He travels through the state a few times a week.

"I think it's a great initiative," he said. "I get the sense of security and safety that I need and I can come back to my family feeling that much safer."

Searcy Trucking sent an email to their 150 drivers once the announcement was official. The majority of them cross the international border.

"I did hear already back from a few drivers that said they're going to take advantage of that as early as this week," said Rachelle Baker, manager of driver services at the trucking firm.

During the pandemic, some truckers endured the stigmatization that has dogged their industry, Baker said. Some drivers were denied service at washrooms and restaurants while on the road, while others couldn't book a haircut or eye exam in Manitoba after international travel, although they're essential workers.

With a vaccine, "my hope is that they won't be questioned about it anymore," Baker said.

Rachelle Baker, manager of driver services with Searcy Trucking, said she heard from several of their drivers on Tuesday, who tried to book their appointments in North Dakota for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The Manitoba and North Dakota governments are establishing a joint operations group to manage the initiative, which will explore further ways to vaccinate other essential workers.

North Dakota has already administered more than 500,000 vaccine doses to its population of 762,000 people who are 18 and older, Burgum said.

Manitobans, by comparison, have received 341,926 doses as of April 20, according to the province's vaccination website. That's 26 per cent of the population 18 and older.

On Monday, the province announced anyone 40 and older can now book a vaccination appointment with a doctor or pharmacist offering the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine.

The announcement led to a surge in appointments, with many people now on waiting lists until more supply arrives.

The situation is much different in North Dakota, said Burgum.

"With our supply increasing on a weekly basis … we're starting to move from that place where, instead of rationing vaccine, we're marketing it," he said.

While applauding the two governments for reaching a deal, federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said the arrangement is an indictment of the federal government's failure to procure vaccines. 

"There's never been a starker example of how dire the vaccine shortage … is in Canada," O'Toole told an Ottawa news conference.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe told question period in Regina that he's in talks with Burgum about vaccinating transport drivers from his province. 

Truckers driving to the front of the line for a COVID-19 vaccine

1 year ago
Duration 2:10
North Dakota will offer free vaccines starting Wednesday to Manitoba truck drivers who transport goods across the border.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Ian Froese, Adam Hunter

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