Thunder Bay·Audio

First COVID-19 vaccine in northern Ontario provides hope amidst warnings of a long road ahead

After the months of waiting and speculation, the first COVID-19 vaccine in northern Ontario was administered alongside a chorus of applause and cheers at the COVID-19 Assessment Centre in the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. The first recipient was Sean Bolton, a personal support worker with a 19-year career currently working for the Hogarth Riverview Manor long-term care home in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Sean Bolton, a personal support worker at a Thunder Bay long-term care home was the first to be vaccinated

Sean Bolton, a personal support worker at the Hogarth Riverview Manor long-term care home in Thunder Bay, Ont. is the first person in northern Ontario to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. He says getting vaccinated will help him protect his residents and colleagues in the months ahead. (Logan Turner / CBC)

After the months of waiting and speculation, the first COVID-19 vaccine in northern Ontario was administered alongside a chorus of applause and cheers at the COVID-19 Assessment Centre in the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.

The first recipient was Sean Bolton, a personal support worker with a 19-year career currently working for the Hogarth Riverview Manor long-term care home in Thunder Bay, Ont.

And according to Bolton after he received the shot, "no pain, nothing, feels good."

For many senior health officials in the Thunder Bay district, that first vaccine represented the beginning to the end of a long period of trials and tribulations battling the devastating COVID-19 disease.

Dr. Rhonda Crocker Ellacott, president and CEO of the regional hospital, called it "a turning point in the COVID-19 pandemic."

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janet DeMille said it was "exciting that there is actually a COVID-19 vaccine, right here, right now and it's going to be starting to be administered."

And it was Jackie Park, the manager of the hospital's COVID-19 Assessment Centre who had the honour of actually administering that first vaccine dose.

Still, amidst the relief and cheers flooding out of frontline healthcare workers there was a sobering consensus, the battle is far from over.

The first COVID-19 vaccine in the region went into an arm this morning in Thunder Bay. The first recipient: a personal support worker with a 19-year career working at the Hogarth Riverview Manor long-term care home. Our Up North reporter in Thunder Bay, Logan Turner, was at the hospital as the first shot was given. 7:27

Priority is long-term care workers and those going to administer vaccines in remote First Nations

Bolton wasn't sure why he specifically was chosen to be the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in northern Ontario, but he is among the priority groups as set out by the Ontario government.

According to the province's webpage, Thunder Bay's rollout of the vaccine is part of "Phase 1B," which will see health care workers and essential caregivers working in hospitals, long-term care homes, retirement homes and other locations providing care for seniors be the first to receive the vaccine.

Dr. Crocker Ellacott, the lead on the vaccine roll-out for the Thunder Bay hospital, said the priority was on frontline workers in the six long-term care homes in the city, but following the guidance of the public health unit, the first to receive the vaccine would be those working in homes that are not in an outbreak.

Doctor Rhonda Crocker Ellacott, the president and CEO of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, says the first COVID-19 vaccine administered in northern Ontario is a "turning point" in the pandemic. (Logan Turner / CBC)

"The concern is that if you start to vaccinate staff in an outbreak home, you may have more issues with respect to staffing for a very short period while you vaccinate. So at this point in time, the priority is [homes that are] not in an outbreak."

She added that there is a "priority decision-making matrix" produced by the province's vaccine task force that the hospital is using to guide who it offers the vaccine to first.

The hospital is also laying the groundwork to send vaccines to northern remote communities and First Nations, which is part of the reason it was selected as a distribution site, according to the Ontario government's website.

Dr. Crocker Ellacott said, "we have a shared responsibility to deliver the vaccine both to long-term care direct care staff, as well as to vaccinate those who will travel to northern, remote communities to vaccinate with the subsequent vaccinations that will likely in February.

"So we will have a role to vaccinate the health care workers that will vaccinate remote communities. And as you know, it takes approximately 28 days for there to be effectiveness of the vaccine."

But she added that at this time, "we don't have direct knowledge of the northern remote strategy" to roll out vaccines for those areas.

Despite vaccine, public health measures still need to be followed

All of the planning and beginning of vaccinations in Thunder Bay comes one day after Premier Doug Ford announced the seven health units in northern Ontario would enter a 14-day lockdown beginning December 26 at 12:01 a.m.

According to the district medical officer of health Janet DeMille, just because the first few vaccines have arrived to the region doesn't mean people can ignore public health restrictions.

Thunder Bay District Health Unit Medical Officer of Health Janet DeMille says it's been a "long, drawn-out journey" to get to the point where the first COVID-19 vaccine could be administered in northwestern Ontario, but says this is just the beginning of a long roll-out. (Logan Turner / CBC)

"This has been a long, drawn out journey to get here and we still have a longer time to go to get to the end of this pandemic."

Dr. Crocker Ellacott echoed those sentiments, "as we're coordinating vaccination across the northwest, please take care over the holidays to continue with public health measures. Please be kind to one another and please continue to support those who serve us at the front line."

The hospital said it could not disclose how many vaccines it received in a shipment that arrived on Monday for security purposes and said they were following a provincial directive.

However, Dr. Crocker Ellacott said the hospital does not currently have enough vaccine doses to provide them for all frontline workers in long-term care homes in Thunder Bay and they hope to receive another shipment of vaccines in February.

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