Just before the New Year, community leaders in the far northeast region of Saskatchewan received a year-end update from the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) regarding COVID-19.
Vaccines had arrived from the federal government and they were being rolled out in the province's far north.
Leaders from the Lac La Ronge area were quick to notice their community was absent from the province's initial rollout of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine.
At that time, the far northeast region had 309 active cases of COVID-19, with numbers growing.
"Once we started seeing those numbers — and this is very typical with small, rural settings — it's a wildfire once it starts," La Ronge Mayor Colin Ratushniak said.
That wasn't the leaders only concern.
"Our biggest concern was our local medical health officers were actually not involved in any of the processes or consultation of where the vaccines were going to go."
Getting the government's attention
On Jan. 4, leaders from the area — Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson, Ratushniak and Air Ronge Mayor Julie Baschuk — jointly penned a letter to the Ministry of Health asking why the region and its health officers were being "excluded" from the rollout.
The far north central and far northwest zones had both beene included in the distribution.
"We're not as rural as some of the further northern communities. But we were 10 times the active cases in our zone. To us the rollout didn't make sense to how it was happening," Ratushniak said.
When the letter was sent, the far north central region had 21 active cases and the far northwest region had 144, compared with the far northeast's 309.
"We felt it was an obligation on behalf of our residents, and our frontline workers, and the long-term care residents and staff, that we needed to advocate on their behalf," Ratushniak said.
During a news conference on Jan. 6, Minister of Health Paul Merriman said the doses weren't sent to the far northeast zone because the province "had to do a trial run."
"Now we're getting them into the communities of La Ronge and other areas in the north," Merriman said.
He didn't address concerns that medical officers in the north were being left out of conversations, but did say community leaders were aware they wouldn't receive doses from the initial shipment.
Within 48 hours of sending the letter, the far northeast received 1,450 doses of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine. Inoculations began 48 hours later on Jan. 7.
"Friday, Saturday, Sunday. All those doses were administered," Ratushniak said. He received a dose himself, as he's a front-line worker who often flies COVID-19 positive patients to hospitals in Saskatoon and Prince Albert.
Becoming a leader in administering doses
Since receiving the doses, the far northeast region has acted quickly to deliver them into people's arms.
Nearly half of all the Moderna doses that have been administered to date in Saskatchewan have occurred in the far northeast region.
Everyone takes it seriously because they know if there was any complications, it really could be a deadly situation - Colin Ratushniak, Mayor of La Ronge
Health-care workers in the region have received the vaccine, along with staff and residents of long-term care homes. Over the weekend, several clinics were set up for those 70 and older. Planes loaded up with vaccines which arrived in Southend and Wollaston. Furthermore, second doses were not held back.
The aggressive effort led to the region outpacing inoculation in Prince Albert — where 613 doses have been administered as of Tuesday morning — and in the far northwest, far north central and northeast zones.
"For us it was really important to make sure everything was streamlined, and everyone was trained and educated properly," Ratushniak said.
"Everyone takes it seriously because they know if there was any complications, it really could be a deadly situation."
Challenges going forward
Ratushniak said he's not sure why the far northeast was initially left out of the vaccination plan, but that "it tends to be a trend up here."
"Even our health officers are excluded from the conversations."
He said area leaders will be applying more pressure to the Ministry of Health in the weeks to come.
"Everything seems to be last minute," Ratushniak said.
"We never know when we're going to get our doses. There's no master list of who knows who is getting it, and that's the frustrating part. Maybe that's what is contributing to the slow rollout in other regions."