North

N.W.T. government unveils COVID-19 vaccination strategy

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane, Health and Social Services Minister Julie Green and the N.W.T.'s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Kami Kandola, will provide an update on COVID-19 on Tuesday afternoon.

Territory received 7,200 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine last week

The N.W.T. government released its plan today to distribute the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine across the territory. It said mobile vaccine teams will deliver the vaccine to communities over the next three months as the territory receives additional shipments. (Walter Strong/CBC)

The Northwest Territories has laid out its plans for distributing the COVID-19 vaccines to its 33 communities, releasing its vaccination strategy Tuesday afternoon.

The strategy, titled Immunity for our Communities, includes information on populations prioritized to receive doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, as well as plans for how the vaccine will be distributed into the territory's communities.

People classified as the highest risk residents will receive the vaccine beginning in January, with the rest of the population receiving vaccinations starting in March. Risk factors include:

  • Those over the age of 60, particular those in long-term care facilities or shared living environments;
  • Those with existing chronic diseases and comorbidities, including lung, kidney, or heart disease;
  • Those with a higher likelihood of transmitting COVID-19 to people at high risk, including frontline health care workers and those who work with high risk vulnerable populations;
  • Resident workers who regularly work out of territory or with out of territory workers at work camps; and
  • Residents who live in remote communities.

Schedule of vaccine shipments

At a news conference on Tuesday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola said the federal government advised the N.W.T. it will receive its second shipment of 7,200 vaccines next week. Afterwards, the territory will receive two more shipments of 7,200 doses at three- to four-week intervals before receiving its final shipment of more than 20,000 doses in mid-March.

The territory received its first shipment of 7,200 doses on Dec. 28 and stored them at the Stanton Territorial Hospital. On Dec. 31, the N.W.T. immunized 130 residents and staff at two long-term care facilities, one in Yellowknife and one in Behchokǫ̀.

When the territory gets its final shipment in mid-March, it expects it will have received 51,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, enough to immunize 75 per cent of the adult population. 

If that number of vaccines is inadequate for all adults who would like to receive one, the plan states that all other eligible adults will receive a vaccine by the end of 2021.

In its strategy document, the territory said it will deploy mobile vaccine teams made up of up to eight health care providers and support staff to deliver the vaccine to communities. Local health staff will be available to provide information before immunization clinics begin in most cases.

'Communities will be informed'

Health Minister Julie Green said at the news conference that teams will visit the different communities several times over the course of the next three months to make sure everyone who wants to get vaccinated will get vaccinated.

Kandola said that as the mobile vaccine teams travel across the territory, communities will be informed when they're coming and what people will have to do to get vaccinated. She said the territorial website will be updated regularly and urged residents to keep checking it for new information.

"We still have to respect, wisely, the requirements around indoor gatherings so the information about how people will get the vaccine will be individual to the community," said Kandola.

When possible, according to the document, translators and interpreters will be used to ensure that information is available to speakers of the territory's Indigenous languages.

Green revealed during the news conference that portable freezers, used to store the vaccines in remote communities, are on backorder.

Kandola said the lack of portable freezers will not prevent the territory from delivering the vaccine to the communities and immunizing people.

"[We can still] maintain the amount of vaccines and bring it to communities and deliver it safely," said Kandola.

She said the good thing about remote communities is that the number of people living there is small so the vaccine teams are able to bring the vaccines there and maintain the cold chain with what she called alternative storage arrangements.

"It's just that we have no means to store vaccines in some of these communities without these portable freezers," she said. "So we are aiming to bring just enough vaccines to vaccinate the populations that we need to so we don't have vaccine wastage."

If you missed the news conference, you can watch it here.

The plan also hints at the rollback of travel and gathering restrictions related to the pandemic, once the vaccine has been delivered.

The territory's restrictions "have been instrumental in the protection of the public but have taken a toll on residents of the N.W.T.," it reads. "Following vaccine delivery, the restrictions will be reviewed and adjusted to reflect the risk level."

The plan also notes that it will be important for residents to continue to practice protective measures like physical distancing, staying home when you are sick, and wearing a mask, even once vaccines are delivered.

Health officials left territory during holidays

Premier Cochrane reacted to a CBC story published Tuesday that revealed two top N.W.T. health officials spent the holidays outside the territory.

The deputy minister of health, Bruce Cooper, went to Newfoundland to spend time with his wife and children, who live there, according to Health Minister Julie Green. At the same time, the head of the COVID-19 secretariat, associate deputy minister Russell Neudorf, travelled to Kelowna, B.C., with his wife to be with their three university-aged children at a home the family has there.

Cochrane revealed during the news conference that there were three officials who left the territory during the holidays although she did not name the third official, citing the territory's human resources policy. Cochrane had previously asked residents not to travel outside the territory unless it was essential. 

"However, they are recommendations," Cochrane said Tuesday.

"We know we can't stop people from crossing borders, we all know that. There are human rights to protect. But we also know that every single person that travels into the N.W.T. is obligated to follow the orders to self-isolate. I can guarantee that every single official, every single government employee in fact, that might travel or has travelled, is abiding by the order when they return and the officials are self-isolating at this time as per the order."

She added that no minister from her cabinet has left the territory since Dec. 23 and that none have travelled internationally since the start of the pandemic.

The revelations came on the heels of several federal and provincial elected officials, as well as political staff, disclosing they had travelled outside the country during the holidays.

In November, Premier Cochrane and Dr. Kandola had urged residents to stay in place over the holidays.

Case count remains stable

According to the territorial government's website, as of Jan. 4, there have been 24 cases of COVID-19 in the territory since the pandemic began.

All 24 people have recovered from the illness.

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