Pimicikamak uses extra doses to vaccinate 180 teachers against COVID-19 in Thompson

Roughly four out of every five teachers in Thompson have now gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, thanks largely to a nearby First Nation sharing its allotted doses last week.

Educators, front-line workers among 850 immunized with shots from First Nation last week, chief says

Pimicikamak, also known as Cross Lake Cree Nation, doled out extra vaccine doses to hundreds outside the community last week. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In Thompson, Man., almost every teacher is now at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19 after a nearby First Nation shared hundreds of extra doses with people outside the community last week.

Educators and front-line workers, including police officers, were among those surprised with a chance to get immunized when Pimicikamak, also known as Cross Lake Cree Nation, ran a four-day vaccine clinic to dole out a stockpile of extra doses, Chief David Monias said.

By the time the clinic wrapped on Saturday, 850 people had been vaccinated — including 180 teachers.

On top of older educators who had already gotten their shots, the clinic brought the proportion of Thompson's total 270 teachers to have been immunized to about 80 per cent, said Cathy Pellizzaro, president of the Thompson Teachers' Association.

"That means that teachers can feel a sense of relief. They still have to follow safety protocols, but it gives them less stress," Pellizzaro, who also works mornings as a Grade 5 teacher at Thompson's Deerwood School, said on Sunday.

She said teachers in the city about 650 kilometres north of Winnipeg are extremely grateful for Pimicikamak's generosity.

"I've had [teachers] call me crying, they were so happy," Pellizzaro said.

Cathy Pellizzaro is a Grade 5 teacher at Deerwood School in Thompson, Man., and the president of the Thompson Teachers' Association. (Submitted by Cathy Pellizzaro)

About 65 per cent of Pimicikamak's adult members are now vaccinated, nearing the community's goal of 75 per cent.

But the First Nation, which is about 530 kilometres north of Winnipeg, can't get shots to all its unvaccinated members right now, Monias said.

That's partly because some are hospitalized or otherwise away from the community, he said — so leadership decided to shift its vaccine rollout outside Pimicikamak to communities that interact with them.

"COVID does not discriminate," Monias said. "We've got to attack it the same way that it's attacking us. And that's without borders, without biased views."

That approach included a focus on people who regularly interact with kids in Pimicikamak — who make up the majority of its population and can't yet get vaccinated themselves — as a way to create an immunity "bubble" around them, he said.

It also included sharing doses with other First Nations, including Nelson House, Norway House and Split Lake, Monias said.

Pimicikimak Chief David Monias receives his second COVID-19 shot in this file photo. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

For the small number of teachers in the northern city still unvaccinated — a list that includes Pellizzaro, who was too busy rounding up teachers for their shots at the surprise clinic to get her own — "the anxiety is still there," she said.

That's especially true as more contagious coronavirus variants continue to spread in Manitoba, including to several schools across the province, Pellizzaro said.

The 53-year-old said she's excited to soon be included in Manitoba's largely age-based vaccine rollout, which as of Sunday had expanded to those 56 and up.

And hope is on the horizon, Pellizzaro said, as teachers across the province wait to see if they'll be included in Manitoba's latest shift, which will focus in part on front-line workers like teachers in communities deemed high-risk. 

"We are a high risk region and we know that," she said. "We're not that heavily populated, but we still have some active cases here."

As of Sunday, Thompson's health district had 13 active COVID-19 cases and a rate of nearly seven cases per 100 people — nearly double that of Winnipeg — according to Manitoba's online dashboard.

More details about the expanded vaccine rollout, like which communities and professions will be included, are set to be announced on Wednesday.