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Is the vaccine safe, and is N.W.T. on track for herd immunity? Doctors answer COVID-19 questions

With vaccination against COVID-19 beginning in N.W.T. communities, the territory's top doctors are combating misinformation and answering questions about who can get it, and whether herd immunity is on the horizon.

Dr. Kami Kandola and Dr. AnneMarie Pegg answered your questions during a bi-weekly call-in show

The N.W.T.'s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Kami Kandola, received her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 13. She said it was an honour to get the vaccine in a small community she's been trying to protect against the virus. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

With vaccination against COVID-19 beginning in N.W.T. communities, the territory's top doctors are combating misinformation and answering questions about who can get it, and whether herd immunity is on the horizon.

Priority groups, such as elders, long-term care workers and front-line staff, started getting the vaccine in the last couple of weeks, with community members in Wekweètì getting vaccinated on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kami Kandola and territorial medical director AnneMarie Pegg answered the public's questions on CBC's call-in show, The Trailbreaker.

Here are some of those questions.

The Moderna vaccine came out so quickly, is it actually safe?

Dr. Pegg explained that scientists have been working on the vaccine platform that the Moderna vaccine is based on for years before it was used to develop the COVID-19 vaccine.

"It was sort of a project in search of an appropriate disease. There were lots of potential diseases that it could be used for, but a lot of them were really uncommon."

Pegg said when new vaccines are rolled out, it's often for uncommon diseases. That makes it hard to find a population where the level of the disease circulating is high enough to test people who had the vaccine, and people who didn't get the vaccine, to see if it works. As a result, it's hard to tell if the vaccine reduced the disease or whether it was just luck that people didn't get it.

"But with COVID[-19], unfortunately, there's lots of people and lots of disease circulating around," Pegg said.

She said those two factors made rolling out a safe vaccine easier to do.

Pegg also said that the vaccine went through a lot of safety testing and was evaluated by international scientific bodies for side effects before it was rolled out.

"It really shows that when the whole world is motivated to do something, there's really the will and capacity to do it."

Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, territorial medical director, receives her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Stanton Territorial Hospital on Jan. 10. During the call-in show Thursday, she stressed that the vaccine is safe. (Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority)

Is the Northwest Territories on track for herd immunity? 

Dr. Kandola said they likely won't know until March, when the general population in the territory will receive the vaccine, if there is herd immunity.

Herd immunity is conferred when enough people in a given population have been infected with a virus, making them immune to reinfection, and slow down the rate at which the virus spreads on its own.

Kandola says it's too early to know right now, but the March vaccinations will give them a better sense.

"That's going to be the critical step in deciding, do we have enough to really slow down the virus if it comes to the Northwest Territories?"

Should pregnant or breastfeeding women, or immunocompromised people get the vaccine?

Both breastfeeding and pregnant women, as well as immunocompromised people were not included in the original vaccine trials, Dr. Pegg said.

However, when it comes to both groups, Pegg said as long as they are aware that the vaccine hasn't been tested on them, they should be given the vaccine if they want it.

"There really isn't any scientific reason to think that the vaccine would be harmful," Pegg said of pregnant and breastfeeding women.

She said a number of specialists, including in Canada, have come out with strong language that those women should be offered the vaccine.

It was an emotional moment for me.​​​​​- Dr. Kami Kandola on getting the vaccine

That's similar with immunocompromised individuals, Pegg said. She said in many cases they could be at higher risk for developing severe COVID-19.

"Given the risk profile of a lot of these people, they should probably have some protection rather than none," she said.

She also said that there's no reason, looking at how the Moderna vaccine works in the body, to believe that it would harm someone on immunosuppressive drugs.

For both groups, she also suggested discussing the vaccine and any questions with your primary health-care provider.

My elderly parents were told to stop pain and heart medications before receiving the vaccine. Can medications be harmful when mixed?

Pegg said that people should consult with their health-care provider about their specific medications, but said it's quite rare.

"There are very, very few medications that actually require stopping in order to get the vaccination," she said.

Kandola added that elderly people with heart conditions would also be at greater risk of contracting severe COVID-19 symptoms.

"So these are the very people that we want to vaccinate; they're at a higher risk of severity."

If I'm hesitant to get the vaccine now, can I still get it later?

"If you don't get the vaccine now, there's an opportunity to get the vaccine in March when we roll it out to the general population," said Dr. Kandola.

Right now they are only rolling out the vaccine to high-risk priority populations, including small, remote Indigenous communities, people with chronic diseases, and the elderly (in Yellowknife, that's 75 and older).

If people have hesitations, she also suggested that they talk to their primary health-care provider, or email her office at cpho@gov.nt.ca.

Dr. Kandola got the vaccine in Wekweètì on Wednesday. How did it go?

"It went quite well. I was honoured," she said.

Kandola said she was speaking with local Chief Charlie Football, answering questions around the vaccine, when he invited her to come to the community with the vaccination team.

"It just occurred to me, that would be awesome. And I graciously accepted because it would be wonderful to be actually in a remote community getting my first dose along with everyone else."

She said not only does it instill confidence in the vaccine, but it was also a "full circle" moment for her, since it's been about a year since she started working on the pandemic plan.

"That I could literally fly into a community that I've been trying hardest to protect from the ravages of COVID[-19] disease and actually get my first dose there, it was an emotional moment for me."

With files from Alyssa Mosher

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