The N.W.T. will begin vaccinating elders and staff in long term care facilities over the next two weeks and plans to roll it out to other priority groups starting the week of Jan. 11, the territory's top public health official said Wednesday.
Dr. Kami Kandola provided an update two days after the territory received 7,200 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
"We will now be embarking on the most complex vaccine roll out in our history," Kandola said, appearing by video in a news conference along with the territory's medical director, Dr. AnneMarie Pegg.
"Right now, our vaccine teams are working on quality assurance, training and logistics, necessary preparation to ensure safe, effective vaccines get to the highest priority Northerners," Kandola said.
Kandola identified four priority groups that will receive the vaccine: elders, those at risk of severe diseases, front line health workers and remote Indigenous populations.
She said the rest of the population, including her, would likely receive their first shot of the two dose vaccine sometime in March, with the second dose to follow 28 days later in April.
The vaccines are being kept at the Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife, a short distance from Aven Manor, an elders home in the capital.
When asked why the those residents have to wait to be vaccinated, Dr. Pegg explained health officials are in the process of connecting with residents and families in long-term care facilities to ensure they have a chance to have their questions answered, allowing people to give proper informed consent.
"We've seen comments on social media from people asking why we didn't have a firm time ready to roll," Dr. Pegg said.
"We do have a plan, but adding detail specific to our vaccine supply was the next step. Vaccination teams and staff have been working non-stop over the break to ensure that this plan works."
The biggest challenge, she said, is due to the limited supply of the vaccine, health teams need to ensure it sends the exact right amount into each community — "not too much, not too little."
That involves making sure the vaccine's "cold chain" is not broken. Moderna needs to be stored between –15 and –25 C throughout its entire journey until it's defrosted, she explained.
Once defrosted, the vaccine can be stored between two to eight degrees Celsius for up to 30 days, but cannot be refrozen. A room temperature vaccine in a vial is good for 12 hours, but once a vial is opened, it must be used within six, she said.
Kandola assured elders will get the vaccine and stressed the importance of taking the time to talk to people to ensure they know what they're getting, allowing them to make an informed decision about vaccination.
"If something was to happen and if a family member felt rushed and they regret it, that would be on me and the system for not taking the time to address their concerns," she said.
Next shipment expected in January
Kandola said the territory expects to receive another shipment of roughly 7,200 more doses of the Moderna vaccine at the end of January.
The N.W.T. government hasn't released a detailed rollout plan for the vaccine yet but Kandola said she expects more details next week.
Kandola previously said the strategy will involve consulting with Indigenous and community governments on how to prioritize doses.
Premier Caroline Cochrane said on CBC's Power and Politics on Dec. 23 that a "huge educational component" will be part of the rollout strategy.
The N.W.T. has a large Indigenous population, and, given its colonial history, Cochrane said that some people fear they're being used as "guinea pigs."
"So we have our own work to do," she said.
Kandola spent a good portion of the news conference affirming the safety of the vaccine. She said serious adverse reactions are very rare. Redness, a sore arm or a mild fever are common side effects and disappear over a few days, she said, adding that "it is much safer to get the vaccine then the disease."
The Northwest Territories has been one of the least hard-hit populations in Canada by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 24 total confirmed cases. According to the territorial government's website, all have recovered.
"Everyone in the territory should be proud of what we accomplished this year," Kandola said.
"Because of your efforts, we were able to introduce a lot more normalcy to our lives that in many other jurisdictions. We also need to look forward to 2021 because we still have a lot of work to do in the coming months."
Missed the update? Watch it here: