Vaccines are making their way north to some of Saskatchewan's most remote communities, but the provincial government says the roll out in the region may be slower than elsewhere in the province.
Saskatchewan's major urban centres have already seen thousands of doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech Vaccine put into the arms of priority groups, which include health-care workers and long-term care residents.
In the north, where the province is administering the Moderna Vaccine due to it being easier to store and ship, only 505 doses have been administered, despite the province getting roughly 4,900 doses at the end of December 2020.
Paul Merriman, Saskatchewan's Minister of Health, said the doses are either on their way or arriving on location, noting that vaccinating people in Saskatchewan's north presents logistical challenges.
"This isn't where we could do 5,000 or 1,000 people over a short amount of time," he said.
He said travel, storage and timeline of doses all come into play, as the Moderna vaccine requires two doses over a period of 28 days.
Merriman said another reason for the low vaccination numbers is there are not as many members of priority groups in the north as there are in major urban centres.
He stressed that the government is doing its best to get the shipments where they need to be as quickly as possible while following all of the requirements around the vaccine.
"This isn't a quick process," said Merriman.
"We want to make sure that we keep the vaccine safe while they're travelling and not to rush the process of moving the vaccines around the province, because if we get a vaccine shipment that's been rushed and somehow been damaged, we've accomplished nothing."
As of Jan. 7, 505 doses of the Moderna vaccine had been administered, which accounts for slightly more than 10 per cent of what the province had received so far.
Georgina Jolibois, mayor of the Northern Village of La Loche, said the provincial government has been keeping northern leaders in the loop when it comes to the rollout plan, but that more support on the ground is needed.
She said one example is more explanations and information about the vaccine in Dene for traditional speakers in the community, especially elders.
"Be clear on what the vaccine is, and go through the vaccine in Dene with the Elders and explain it," she said. "Instead of saying: 'Will you get the vaccine, yes or no' and then proceed. There are things to consider."
She said there are mixed feelings about the vaccine in La Loche.
"There are people who are keen and willing to line up to get their vaccine -- those who are open to it," she said. "And there are those who are quite hesitant because of the many unknowns."
Jolibois says more resources are needed in the north, as residents don't have access to the same level of services as in urban centres, which has raised some questions.
"Many elders in our population worry, 'What if I take the vaccine and I'm OK at the health centre and then I go home and then I develop a reaction, then what?' The unknowns — so many people are still hesitant."
Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB) Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said some northern communities were initially left out of the rollout plan, but after lobbying efforts from northern and Indigenous leaders, and a lot of work "behind the scenes," they were looped in.
Now, more than 1,450 doses of the Moderna vaccine are on route to priority groups in the region, Cook-Searson said.
"We're grateful that our voices have been heard," she said.
She said it's concerning northern leaders and health officers weren't included in the conversation from the start, as there are ample people in her region who are in the priority group and ready to get the vaccine.
She said she spent her first minutes of 2021 thinking about how to advocate for those in the area.
"Doing the research and thinking about our long-term care residents and why do they have to wait another — who knows long they'd have to wait … and I'm thinking we have to advocate for them. We have to do something."
She said she's grateful to hear the vaccines are on there way, adding local staff are already being trained to distribute the vaccine.
Cook-Searson said the LLRIB is still waiting for a response from Merriman on some concerns and needs to be a more central part of the conversation as more vaccines become available.
"The sooner we can get our population the vaccine, the sooner we can get back to normal," she said.
Earlier this week, Merriman said the province is set to receive another 5,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine by Feb. 1, 2020, with future deliveries of the vaccine coming biweekly.
As of Friday afternoon, a combined total of 6,015 doses of both COVID-19 vaccines had been administered in Saskatchewan.
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