Members of the N.W.T.'s legislative assembly pressed the territory's top doctors for more answers on their newly-released vaccination strategy on Wednesday night.
The vaccination strategy, released earlier this week, outlines what the territory is calling a "phased" approach to deliver the Moderna vaccine to priority populations in N.W.T., like those over 60, those with chronic health conditions or those living in fly-in communites.
The territory is hoping to finish immunizing those populations by February, making the vaccine available to the general public in March.
As of Wednesday night, health minister Julie Green said 162 people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀.
MLAs question access to vaccine information on tight timeline
MLAs criticized the territory for not providing enough information for how and when residents can get the vaccine.
Dehcho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge says one chief in his region called their local healthcare centre, and was given the wrong vaccination week.
"I know already that Indigenous governments haven't been contacted at all, period." - Ron Bonnetrouge, Dehcho MLA
Bonnetrouge says there's also no posters or notices in communities in his riding, including Kakisa, Fort Providence and K'atl'odeeche First Nation — even though the first vaccines will be coming in 10 days.
"Given the timeline and the miscommunications already, how are you going to communicate," Bonnetrouge said. "Because I know already that Indigenous governments haven't been contacted at all, period."
Health Minister Julie Green says the exact dates of the vaccine clinics haven't been set yet, so until then "there is no point in putting out posters or announcements on the radio."
Green said the department is trying to finalize the dates and will be sending that information out to communities as soon as possible.
There's even less time for residents and staff of long term care homes in the territory's regional hubs.
Hay River's Woodland Manor is receiving vaccines Thursday, while long term care homes in Fort Smith, Fort Simpson, Inuvik and Norman Wells will be getting the first round of vaccines on Friday.
Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson asked whether this was enough time for residents to give informed consent.
"I've heard concerns over the last couple of days from family members of residents, and I just want to make sure that every person … knows what's going on," Simpson said.
"Some of them may not understand, so we need to make sure that's done properly."
Dr. AnneMarie Pegg, the territory's medical director, said healthcare staff will be able to factor in extra time to sit down with families and residents of long term care homes to explain the vaccine if needed.
Doctors have also been consulted in advance, Pegg said, to advise residents as to whether or not they should receive the vaccine.
Train local nurses to give COVID vaccine, MLAs urge
The second phase of the government's vaccination strategy will be to send mobile vaccination teams, made up of eight healthcare professionals, to fly-in communities as early as next Monday.
Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland and Lesa Semmler, MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, wanted to know if there is a way to train local nurses on the specifics of administering the Moderna vaccine during the first round.
"The nurses in our community, they know who their clients are, we don't have to wait for the teams to come in." - Lesa Semmler, MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes
That's so staff could quickly administer the second dose 28 days later without having to wait for the specialized teams to come back to the community.
"The nurses in our community … they know who their clients are, we don't have to wait for the teams to come in," Semmler said. "They'd have everything ready if they got the go-ahead to do this."
Minister Green said the mobile vaccine units are not to replace local healthcare staff, but will make sure local healthcare staff are still able to provide other types of care to people in the communities as needed.
"I'm sorry that you're taking the planning … as some kind of judgment on the competency of the staff," Green said in response to Semmler's question. "That is not the case."
If someone changes their mind about getting the vaccine, or misses the first round of clinics for whatever reason, Green said, healthcare professionals will be back in the community and can administer it at a later date.
Rebuilding the territorial travel bubble
The territory wants to immunize 75 per cent of its eligible population with the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March — the benchmark for herd immunity.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson wanted to know if the government would consider changing travel restrictions once that threshold is met.
"I have a lot of constituents who run tourism businesses and they want to know whether they should have a summer season or not," he said.
Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer, was not optimistic travel restrictions would be lifted by the summer.
Even if the three territories reach herd immunity, she said, the timeline for the rest of the country is further off.
"They're not going to achieve herd immunity or significant immunization probably until the end of 2021," Kandola said.
Kandola also said it's not known yet whether being vaccinated means a person can no longer transmit the virus.
If enough people in the three territories receive the vaccine, then a new northern travel bubble might be considered, she said.
At that time, Kandola said the territory might also reconsider the mandatory 14-day self-isolation plan for those that have received the vaccine.
As well, she said those who decide not to be vaccinated will still have to comply with the N.W.T.'s public health orders.