Vaccination totals in the Saskatchewan's far north are higher than reported and increasing, says a Saskatchewan deputy medical health officer.
Dr. Isaac Sobol says the vaccinations are being administered by three groups, leading to total uptake being higher than what is currently being reported by the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA).
Sobol is the deputy medical health officer in the Northern Population Health Unit in La Ronge.
The publicly available figures show the three far northern health regions trailing the rest of the province considerably in terms of both first and second doses.
As of Thursday, the far north central had 41 per cent of those eligible having received a first dose and 26 per cent have been fully vaccinated, according to the SHA's numbers.
The provincial average is 71 per cent with one dose and 51 per cent with two.
The SHA data shows the far northwest with 49 per cent one dose and 34 per cent fully vaccinated. The far northeast has 55 per cent of those 12 and over with one dose and 35 per cent fully vaccinated.
The number of first doses and second doses in all three regions has increased by roughly one percentage point in the last three days.
Sobol said he is not aware of any community where there is 30 per cent uptake or less.
He said figures are delayed and there are different organizations providing vaccinations: the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority, the First Nations Inuit Health branch and the SHA.
"When you add those together the picture looks better than the low percentages I've seen reported."
Vaccine hesitancy and obstacles
Efforts to raise the vaccination rates in the far north are ongoing, Sobol said.
"We think we have done a reasonably good job of informing communities."
Sobol said health officers join with local leaders on radio, sometimes with translation into Cree.
"It's not as a result of lack of effort by both community leaders or public health staff. We have tried many different ways of delivering the vaccine, including house-to-house and providing incentives."
Sobol said one challenge early on had to do with the reliability of vaccine supply. The far north was receiving Moderna vaccines. He said clinics had to be cancelled and appointments re-scheduled at short notice due to a lack of supply or vaccines not being delivered when expected.
He said another obstacle was that some people did not have vehicles to get to clinics or telephones to stay informed.
Sobol said that in some cases, clinics have had enough vaccines, but not enough staff to administered them. He said in other cases there is enough staff, but not enough supply or demand.
Sobol said one root cause for those who may be vaccine-hesitant is multigenerational trauma among Indigenous people in Saskatchewan.
"Especially with respect to the unmarked graves around residential schools. There have been centuries of broken treaties, residential school system, the Sixties Scoop. That has resulted in multigenerational trauma and distrust or lack of interest in interfacing with government institutions or programs."
Sobol said "very few" people have been circulating "conspiratorial ideas" about the vaccine and others expressed concern about receiving the Moderna vaccine so quickly after it had been approved for use.
He said cases are dropping, but those that are becoming infected have not yet been vaccinated. Sobol said that information has been communicated.
The SHA does not break down vaccine uptake by sub-regions or specific communities, but Sobol said the rate of vaccinations varies from community to community.
As has been the case across the province, Sobol said, there has been very high uptake in older age groups and the numbers drop as the age gets younger.
He said health officials are taking the vaccine to "get to where people are," and that includes setting up outside public places, continuing to go door-to-door, and communicating the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
"To think of what else can be done at this point is very challenging," Sobol said.
One thing Sobol is watching is the circulation of the delta variant. There have been six identified cases infected with the delta variant in the far northwest and five in the far northeast.
"Some people may think the pandemic is easing off or almost over, but the delta virus has been found in the north. It has not affected our communities as of yet, but if and when it comes it is going to be a problem. So I am concerned that we may even have another wave of an increased number of cases."
On Thursday, the SHA reported 113 new cases, including 58 in the far northeast. Many of the cases are linked to an outbreak at the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation. Hatchet Lake is located about 850 kilometres north of Saskatoon, near Wollaston Lake.
Officials have identified around 100 cases there, but not all have been added to the provincial and regional total.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority said it is assisting the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Agency, which has jurisdiction at Hatchet Lake.
Voluntary mass testing is ongoing and vaccinations are being offered door-to-door at the First Nation.