Military to begin helping with Manitoba First Nations vaccine rollout by end of March

Canadian Armed Forces personnel will be in northern Manitoba First Nations starting March 29, helping set up clinics and transporting community members while medical personnel administer vaccines. 

Armed Forces members arriving in Thompson Thursday to set up operations, defence minister says

The federal government announced last week that the Canadian Armed Forces will assist with vaccine rollouts on remote Manitoba First Nations. (Patrick Butler/CBC)

Canadian Armed Forces personnel will be in northern Manitoba First Nations starting March 29, helping set up clinics and transporting community members while medical personnel administer vaccines. 

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said military personnel will be arriving in Thompson, Man., Thursday to set up a staging hub. The military's operations in northern Manitoba will be run out of that hub.

Up to 200 personnel will be part of the mission, he said. The Canadian Armed Forces will also send a Hercules transport aircraft, up to two Chinook cargo helicopters and up to two Twin Otter aircrafts to support immunization efforts, Sajjan said. 

A planning team was in Thompson last week to conduct a reconnaissance mission, which included surveillance of the air field of Thompson's airport, Saijan said during a news conference Wednesday with Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller. 

Miller said the federal government has plans underway to first help with vaccine rollouts in Norway House, Gods Lake Narrows, Berens River, Little Grand Rapids, O-Pipon-Na-Piwin, Northlands, Manto Sipi Cree Nation, and Sayisi Dene.

In total, members of the Canadian Armed Forces will be assisting with COVID-19 immunization in 23 northern Manitoba First Nations. The mission is expected to last until the end of June. 

"Together, we will make sure that residents' needs are met, and that everyone can be safe and healthy and we will continue to be there if need arises," Miller said. 

The exact time frame for how long the military will be in each community will depend on a number of factors, such as how many people need to be immunized, Sajjan said. 

Addressing challenges 

The federal government approved the deployment on March 18.

At a news conference last Friday, Melanie MacKinnon, one of the leaders of the Manitoba First Nations Pandemic Response Coordination Team, said it's expected everyone living on-reserve in Manitoba who wants to be immunized will have their first COVID-19 vaccine shot by mid-April.

With the spring thaw, some northern communities are going to be harder to get to, MacKinnon said Wednesday. 

Because the military has its own transportation and can set up its own accommodations in communities where other lodgings might not be available, they can help get more people vaccinated faster, she said. 

"That self-reliance is going to be needed at this particular time for some of our communities that have other geographical challenges."

With more transmissible variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 now circulating in Manitoba, it's crucial to get vaccines into the arms of as many people living on reserve as possible, and as quickly as possible, the public health lead for the First Nations response team said.

The biggest concern is that the more transmissible variants become the main source of COVID-19 in First Nations before people are immunized, said Dr. Marcia Anderson.

"So if we have an even more transmissible virus on top of the chronic conditions like overcrowded, inadequate housing that already are really facilitating the spread of this virus … our outbreaks can be worse, and we can see more hospitalizations and other severe outcomes like deaths," she said.

Last week, Mantioba officials announced the province's first on-reserve case of the B117 coronavirus variant, which was first identified in the U.K. They would not say which community it was found in. However, Anderson said the person who tested positive self-isolated and has since recovered.

She said there is no evidence of the variant spreading further on that First Nation.